The Last Billionaire

Eric puttered in the garden, idly chipping at the hard, dry earth with his hoe. Sweat ran down his back, soaking his shirt but offering no relief from the heat. The temperature was already 37, and it was still early in the day. It would be in the mid-40’s this afternoon.

“Come on, Papa,” he muttered to himself, glancing again at the steel door to the compound.

Almost as if in answer, the locks on the door disengaged with a loud, metallic clack, and the door swung inward to disgorge his father, dressed — as always — in the formal clothing of his station.

“We’ve got to go, Papa,” Eric said.

His father stepped out into the sun and heat, blinking rapidly. His back was straight, his head held high, but his jaw was tight.

Eric clenched his own jaw and suppressed a flood of anger.

The bastard probably yelled at Dad. Called him names. Maybe struck him, though I don’t see any marks or blood. Well, it doesn’t matter any more.

He let the hoe fall to the ground, and strode quickly to where the two stuffed backpacks lay half-concealed under a dying bush, one for each of them. He donned one — the heavier one — and carried the other back to his father, who stood, staring at the fallen hoe with a faint scowl on his face.

“You need to put your tools away, son,” his father said, his voice cultured and calm. Eric felt another wave of anger, mixed with shame. He hesitated, then bent and picked up the fallen hoe.

It’s not about the tools,” his father had told him once, when he was a hot-headed teen-ager and had thrown a garden tool to the ground in a rage. “Tools can be repaired or replaced. It’s about you, and how you approach the world around you. Are you going to care for the things in your charge, or are you going to neglect and abuse them?

“I’m sorry, Papa,” Eric said.

His father took a deep breath, and let it out slowly.

“I’m sorry, too, son. Leave the hoe. Walk with me.”

Eric blinked in surprise. But anxiety won out.

“Papa, we’ve got to go! They aren’t going to wait for us.”

“There’s time. Put down your pack, and walk with me to the lake. I want to sit by it for a moment.”

Eric’s clock was the sun. His father’s clock was inside-time, atomic-time, exact time. The same time as the people waiting for them. If his father said there was time, there was time.

Eric sighed, set down his father’s pack, and shrugged out of his own. His father had already started walking into the forest.

This was the fourth forest. The first — the original forest that had stood for centuries on this land — had burned and failed to grow back, because of drought and the growing heat. The second forest had been made of sterner stuff, manufactured to look like real trees, and the result had been … disturbing. They were close to real in appearance, but not quite — the branches did not bend properly in the wind, the leaves did not rustle the way they should, the bark was too regular, and they did not smell right. Though they were designed to give the illusion of life, in reality they emphasized the deadness of the forest. They had been torn down long before the project was completed.

They were replaced by the third forest, which was made up of gardens and sculpture, with climbing, heat-tolerant vines covering arbors and tall marble columns. The heat had eventually baked the heavily-irrigated gardens and withered the vines, leaving the sculpture standing desolate and alone on bare, sun-parched earth. The sculpture was removed and replaced with the fourth forest.

The artists had this time abandoned any attempt to replicate or incorporate nature. They had instead created an abstract fantasy forest of crystal, metal, and enamel. It tinkled rather than rustled in the breezes, and when the wind rose, it would stroke taut wires and openings in hollow branches, and the forest would actually sing. Lights built into the crystalline branches and leaves would flicker and create complex patterns at night. Faintly-perfumed water was pumped through the boles of the trees, and then misted into the air, cooling the shade beneath the branches.

At the center of the forest was a small lake of clear water. The beachfront was made of natural sand that dipped artful fingers into the water. Strategically-placed benches offered striking views of the lake and its surrounding crystal forest.

It had been both beautiful and pleasing, though it was sterile.

This forest had been completed five years ago, but like any man-made art exposed to the weather, it needed constant maintenance. There had been poor maintenance for the last three years, and none at all for the past year, and there were visible signs of decay. Sand had shifted, leaving bare spots that revealed metal and fabric. Enamel had faded where the sun was brightest, and chipped where wind-borne pebbles had struck. One of the trees on the far side of the lake had lost its exterior shell on one side, blown off in a windstorm, revealing rusted iron scaffolding inside. Wind-blown trash and detritus had caught in branches.

It was still beautiful.

They found a bench in the perfume-misted shade and sat. Eric waited in silence for his father to speak.

“Ramón,” Eric’s father said after a time, pensively. “My mother named me Ramón. She looked it up in a book. She said it meant ‘wise protector.’”

He fell silent.

Eric glanced at the sun’s angle, and fidgeted impatiently.

“I am staying,” Ramón said.

Eric stopped fidgeting, and stared at his father blankly.

“Papa! We have passage arranged!”

His father was silent.

“You can’t stay here! This place is dying. You will die with it!”

His father’s shoulders slumped, ever so slightly.

“Son, I am old, and spent. I will die before long, regardless of where I am. Here…. If I stay here, I may still do some good.”

“What good can you possibly do here?!” Eric cried out.

Ramón turned to fix Eric with a sharp gaze and faint smile that curled one side of his mouth.

“Good does not come of circumstances…” Ramón said.

“…it comes of choices,” Eric finished, with angry tears in his eyes. “As you’ve told me my entire life. But that is just as true whether you are here, or far from here. You can do good here, and you can do good there. Why stay? WHY?”

Ramón sighed, and turned his gaze back to the sterile lake.

“He will not notice the disappearance of another gardner. But if I leave, he will certainly notice. It will frighten him, and he will report my absence. They will hunt us both down.”

“Papa, half the staff is already gone. He has done nothing.”

Ramón smiled tightly, without mirth. “He does nothing, because he does not know.”

Eric blinked. “How… how can he not know?”

“Because I have not told him.”

Eric gaped.

“Papa, this whole place is like an abandoned house. Look at that tree over there — no one has fixed it. No one will. The last real gardens are nearly dead. Fountains have gone dry, and they still gurgle, because no one has bothered to shut off the power to the pumps. The apartments have far more dark windows at evening than lighted windows. How can he possibly not notice?”

Ramón closed his eyes and sighed, and slowly shook his head.

“He doesn’t notice, son, because he never leaves the compound, and has never noticed the staff. He does not bother to learn their faces, or know their names, or what they do, or where they live. He has people — like me — who do that for him. The working staff are as invisible to him as individual tiles in the floor, or bricks in a wall. Years ago, he would have noticed the … decay. The poor quality of service. He would have called on me to answer for it. But he is also aging, just as I am, and has other matters on his mind. He has not noticed, and I have not told him. So he has done nothing.

“If I leave, he will notice. He will report it. Contract Authority will hunt us down. They will find us. They will treat us as traitors and terrorists.”

Eric stared blankly ahead, silent tears on his face. They he scowled.

“You’ve always known this. Yet you agreed to escape to freedom with me. You helped me plan our escape. Did you ever intend to come with me? Or was it always a lie? To send me off to safety alone?”

“I have never lied to you, son.” Ramón’s voice was quiet, but suppressed fury rang in his tone, and reproach covered his face.

Fresh tears sprang to Eric’s eyes. “Then something else changed. What is going on, Papa?”

The anger and reproach on Ramón’s face blew away like dust in a hot summer wind.

“What changed, Papa?”

Ramón was silent for a long time. Eric waited.

“Elon is dead,” Ramón said at last, as though that explained anything at all. Eric merely shook his head.

“Who is Elon?”

“His friend. They were the last two of their kind. They were working on a final project together, he said the most important project he had ever attempted. He did not want disturbances. He barely wanted to eat. But Elon has been ill, and this morning, when he did not answer, I reported it. Contract Authority confirmed that Elon is dead, of natural causes associated with old age.”

“I don’t understand. So he lost a friend. We’ve all lost friends.”

“You are not thinking clearly, son. Work it out.”

Eric scowled and looked at his feet.

“I see,” he said at last. “He was distracted by his project with this friend. He would not have missed you right away. We could both have left, and would have been beyond reach before it was reported. Now, he has no friend, and no project, and he’ll be calling for you at all hours. If you aren’t there….”

Ramón smiled and nodded. “Remember in the future to think before you speak. As I’ve told you countless times.”

Eric shrugged off the rebuke.

“We should still take the chance, Papa. Contract Authority has lost a lot of men, and they are overworked controlling riots and massacres in the gated enclaves. They are stretched very thin. Why would they look for us?”

“Because of who he is,” Ramón replied. “The Contract Authority was created to serve men like him. Their charter is to track down runaway employees, not quell riots among employees who have stayed. His report of a runaway will gain their full attention. Even if the enclaves are burning.”

“But what about the people giving us passage? Can’t they protect us?”

Ramón shook his head.

“Much of the passage fee is to bribe the Authority to look the other way. If he reports us, Authority won’t honor the bribe.”

Eric began to sob openly, and he clenched and unclenched his hands as he wept. Ramón pulled Eric’s head into his shoulder and held him close. Eric clung to his father like a child.

When Eric’s weeping was done, he released his father and pushed himself away. He stared at Ramón with reddened eyes.

“Then I must stay, too. I can’t go without you.”

Ramón smiled with sudden tears in his eyes.

“No, Eric. You don’t need me any more. You are no longer a boy. You are a man, and you will thrive in your new home.”

“That’s not what I meant, Papa. I meant I can’t go, and leave you here. He is a cruel man. Things will get worse, and he will take out his rage and disappointment on you, as he has in the past. I can’t leave you to face that, all alone.”

Ramón glanced at the shiny disk on his wrist, then rubbed his face with his other hand.

“Eric, there is so much I want to tell you, but time is growing short.

“Yes, once I rose out of the lower echelons, he noticed me, and was cruel to me, and many nights, especially after a beating, I went to my bed dreaming of my hands tight around his throat. But by that time, I had you, and your mother had died, and I knew that if I showed so much as a hint of my murderous thoughts, they would tear up my contract and send me to the slums, and sell your contract on the open market. As a child. You know what that would have meant.

“So instead, I swallowed my pride, and endured. I continued to rise in rank. He came to trust me, and then to depend upon me. I grew close enough that I could have killed him. Perhaps even made it look natural. But I was always afraid I would make a mistake, and they would find me out, and execute me, and I can only guess what they would have done to you. Something unbearable.

“I endured. I adjusted staffing quotas to ensure you had work, and rations. I’ve kept you close to the compound and off the hard labor lists. I’ve structured my life so that you could live until a real opportunity came along. That time has come. You must take passage. You must go. Because you are right: this place is dying. The entire civilization is dying. If you stay, you will die with it. You will make everything I endured meaningless.

“Please, Eric. Go. Let me stay and do what I need to do, so that you can go, and be free. Please.”

Eric studied his father’s face for a long moment, then took a deep breath.

“I will go, Papa. And you will stay. And I will tell my sons, and daughters, and anyone who will listen, what you did for me.”

Ramón smiled, and the smile at last caused the unshed tears to fall and rain down his cheeks.

“Then it is time, my son,” Ramón said, and rose.

They turned and walked back through the metal forest toward the compound.

“Once I’m safely en route, will you kill him?”

Ramón walked in silence for a while.

“No,” he said at last. Eric glanced at him in surprise, and saw that his father also had a puzzled expression on his face.

“Why not?” Eric asked.

Ramón said nothing for a long moment. Then he spoke, hesitantly.

“I saw the project he and Elon were working on. They had decided to fix the climate. Just the two of them. They would put their vast financial empires together, and get the job done. They had a plan. I don’t know enough to tell you if it was a good plan, or a bad plan, or just a fantasy of old men. They spoke as if they thought it would work. But they were stuck on one, final point, something they could not get around.”

“What was that?” Eric asked.

“They could not figure out how to make it profitable.”

Eric stopped walking, his mouth open. Ramón stopped, and turned back to face his son. They stared at each other. And then Ramón’s lips twitched slightly, and they both burst out laughing uncontrollably.

The laughter at last subsided, and they quickened their pace toward the compound. Ramón’s face grew sad as they walked.

“When I understood that they could not move forward with a plan to save the Earth because it would not make them wealthier, I understood something about both of them that I had never imagined. 

“They were afraid. Their lives were consumed by that fear. They were like dogs that keep eating, not because they are hungry, but because they are afraid of becoming hungry. They eat to try to quell, not their hunger, but their fear. They eat until they are in pain, and then eat more until their stomachs burst, and they die. Their fear does not allow them to do otherwise.

“He has always had apple pie on his birthday, since he was a boy. A few years ago, his chefs could not prepare his birthday pie, because there were no apples to be found, at any price. 

“He screamed at the cooks. He had the head chef beaten. When he finally grasped that we couldn’t find apples, he ordered us to plant an apple orchard, at enormous expense, in a special climate-controlled garden with seed we acquired from a seed ark: the seeds never germinated. Then he wanted us to buy a biotech company to create new heat-resistant apple seeds — but there weren’t any such companies left, and their employees’ contracts had all been scattered to other industries.

“He is the richest, most powerful man in the world, and he can’t have apple pie on his birthday. And he can’t seem to grasp why this is the case.”

They had reached the compound door, and Eric shouldered his pack.

“I no longer hate him,” Ramón said. “I pity him. He’s caused himself far more pain than he ever caused me. And he has nothing to show for it. His last friend is dead, and all his wealth cannot buy him a final taste of apple pie. I’m the fortunate one: I have a son, who is going to make a life for himself in a place where the rain still falls.

“So no, son, I’m not going to kill him. I’m going to continue to serve him as I have for so many years, and try to make his last days more comfortable.”

They embraced. Then both wiped away their tears, and Eric turned and strode away without looking back.

2 comments on “The Last Billionaire

  1. This is one of your best pieces. You’ve got a detailed analysis of the wealthy-elite mindset here — and it’s cleverly woven into a well-written story.

    Like

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