Mountain Pass, California
Late July 2020
“What do you mean they’re out on bail?” I screamed into my Bluetooth speakers. I couldn’t believe what the Santa Clara County DA, Steve Ross, was saying.
“President Crown demanded their release. He said it’s against our national interest to prosecute these men—”
“What the fuck! Against our ’national interest?’ I was drowning in blood while sitting in my hot tub—landed in a coma for a month! Those three criminal elitists shot me for my trade secrets. My freaking technology!”
“I’m not disputing these men need punishment for this violent assault against you, Mr. Coleman. It’s a felony that demands punishment by law—.”
“It was an attempted murder,” I blurted. As I say this, I’m reminded they had no intent to kill me. They used scare tactics to get me to relinquish my software code and stay in their money games.
Not that I’m sympathetic to their ruthless business tactics. But I’m aware of how the principle of equality before the law has been destroyed, and the law only protects the very powerful in America. As a mere millionaire, I’m not considered powerful enough to protect against corporate special interest. No, here in the U.S. I’m still a human pawn on the global chess board.
Ross let out an exasperated sigh. “President Crown has a toxic grip over our nation. He’s a lawless thug, and it ties my hands—”
“So… we just let the President of the United States protect rogue military officials, and my life stays in danger?” I yelled into my phone. Although I doubted Helm would ever go after me again—I can’t speak for the others.
“I’ve heard a private consulting firm is tightening security around your home in Los Altos Hills, providing you with executive protection services,” Ross said.
My eyes scanned the glass doors of MP Materials, as I sat in my car contemplating my sure-to-be tense meeting with the CEO of America’s only rare earth’s mine. “Fuck! Bodyguards? I’ll be living like a prisoner in my home.”
“It’s all we can do for now. As you know, Crown is strengthening his grip. With domination even over our judicial system. Heck, we can’t even get him prosecuted—”
“And he has power over this mine,” I interrupted, half listening as I ponder an escape to Las Vegas if this meeting doesn’t go well. It’s only an hour away from here. I’ll soak in the renowned spas and get a message.
“Where are you?”
“In Mountain Pass, at MP Materials rare earth mine. I hope to talk sense into the executive team about the facility being financed through the Pentagon. It’ll be the next supply chain for the equivalent of the Manhattan Project—we’ll have an AI Armageddon.”
I hear Ross take a deep breath. “May I ask—it was never revealed in the media. Who exactly are these military officials that came after you? Even the California DA was pressured to keep the names hushed, under the deceptive umbrella of national security—”
“Chris Helm, Jed Snead, and Ahmad bin Talden.” I divulged the names with no concern over confidentiality. Enough fucking secrets already, these men don’t deserve to be protected to help keep our nation’s self-destructive war economy going. They nearly killed me. Seriously, we’ve weaved the so-called “defense” industry with the scientific community to tightly.
Silence. After a moment, Ross said, “We’re talking three men within President Crown’s military intelligence enterprise—.”
We ended the call, and I used the time to check my email as I pushed my seat back to relax.
I twisted my head around, glancing at the huge open pit on the south flank of the Clark Mountain Range. At once our nation’s only hope and despair for rare earth metals. The familiar toxic rusty orange against layered rocked walls gripped my heart. It was pretty, oddly looking like the Grand Canyon. My mind raced to a dreadful apparition, as though the mine was pulling me back to my childhood:
Men toiling in the contaminated sludge of the Mountain Pass mine transform into my Dad, emerging from an underground Kentucky mine carrying a headlamp and covered in heavy coal dust. He collapsed, and I ran to him, “Dad! Dad!” I’m thirteen, eager to use my CPR skills. There’s no pulse. I shook my dad’s body, willing him back to life, then do rescue breaths and compressions until the doctor arrives. In minutes, he will pronounce my father dead.
Staring at the open-pit in the Mojave Desert, it looks dystopian—filled with the world’s insatiable hunger for digital technology. My own tech lusts. Dozens of pipes line the shores of pink and white edges of the pond. The constant noise of trucks and men shouting rattled my nerves.
I have five minutes to center myself and present a pillar of strength to the MP Materials CEO, Steve Minsk. A man representing a powerful influence on the direction our nation takes with extraction and use of rare earth metals.
But the dragon is grabbing me by its claws, breathing its fire down my back, pulling me out from my protective cave.
My nightmares flash before my eyes. The ones where the technology I invented changes the world for the better; then morph into me coughing up coal dust and dying of black lung disease like my dad.
“Get control of yourself,” I say out loud. Slay your dragons, Coleman.
I had driven seven hours from Los Altos Hills to Mountain Pass, through the hauntingly beautiful Mojave Desert with its stunning vistas, vast space, cacti, and sunsets. Enough time to contemplate my fiancé Julie’s safety, my own life, or simply getting a good meal in my body. And… beneath the surface, the growing exploitation of the wilderness by oil and mining interests.
A man donning goggles, a hard hat, and mask walked past. He looked ready to perform a major operation. I half expected surgical scrubs. Rolling down my window, I get a closer look and recognized the broad shoulders and awkward movements of Steve Minsk walking beside the coal miner. I’d met him several times; at a Supply Chain Management Conference in San Francisco and within the VC investment world.
“Mr. Coleman, I knew it had to be you. Only Silicon Valley people drive those fancy Tesla’s,” he joked.
I slipped on a mask and stepped out of my car. “She’s a beauty, good use of those magical rare earth metals.”
Minsk’s eyes cringed into a smile. “We have substantial demand from Tesla for Model 3, which has a magnetic motor. What year is your car?”
Minsk patted the cobalt blue hood of my sedan, then turned to me. “Nice. But I have a strong suspicion you didn’t drive all this way to improve the performance of your sexy automobile with updated magnets.”
I laughed… the courtesy chuckle that’s more of a conscious effort to move the conversation on than anything else. “You’re right, I didn’t come here to talk about my wheels, although it would be nice to see more rare earth used for EV’s, and wind turbines—rather than weapons.”
Minsk’s eye roll said more than words. We were standing out in the scorching sun, Minsk dressed in a green-and-black plaid lumberjack short-sleeved shirt tucked into a well-broken-in pair of jeans. Work boots, a body used for physical work. He didn’t look like the typical CEO, and I felt overdressed in my, crisp white shirt and Brunello Cucinelli trousers.
The mine spreads out in the drought-stricken desert with black rubber hoses curled in the baking sun. Sulfur mixed with other compounds gave off a rotten-egg-like odor. The processing facilities in dun-colored warehouses perched on the hillside, covered in sage and Joshua trees looking like they struggled to survive.
As I wiped the perspiration from my forehead, Steve slapped my shoulder and said, “I’m sorry, I meant to have us go into my air-conditioned office. I hope you’re not here to preach. Follow me.”
Minsk’s workspace reminded me of my dad’s coal mine office, albeit “extraction modern,” with its swivel seats and conference rooms. We passed a closet full of hard hats and goggles before we turned the corner into his small office. Behind his L-shaped cherry wood desk hung his degrees from Yale and Northwestern. I realized with his background in law, banking, and investments, I might know more about mining than he does.
“Please, take a seat,” Minsk said as he shifted in his chair as if the seat hurt him. “I’m not sure I want to hear what you have to say but elaborate on this crazy advice not to use rare earth metals to promote our national interests.”
National interests? There it is again, a corporate cliché. My hands instinctively moved to a couple of my gun wounds. In my opinion, stopping our nations ’gun violence and insane superpower competition of combat should be our true national interest. “Can we get your other C-level executives in here?”
“They’re all in a management meeting at our headquarters in Las Vegas.”
I should have figured. I struggled to be direct without being blunt. But blurted, “I came to warn you against accepting funding from the Pentagon for—”
“Seriously? So… so even though these minerals are in such high demand by people that want them, we should say no to our largest funding source because you have some ridiculous thought it would—”
“Hear me out, please! The Pentagon isn’t exactly going to push for clean energy and civilian medical equipment. For fucks sake, we can’t even take care of Cloud Virus patients—”
“My demand isn’t just from weapons manufacturers. How about all those teens addicted to their smartphones? Your own software needs to work with these magnets for hard drives. What are you thinking?”
“What am I thinking? How our conversation can roll so easily from the Pentagon to kid’s smartphones. It shows how ubiquitous warfare is in the high-tech world. Building weapons out of my software is what landed me in the ICU—nearly dead with gunshot wounds.”
Minsk stood and ran his hands through his thick brown hair. He turned to the water cooler jug and poured two cups of ice-cold water. We both drank deeply.
Shaking his head, he said, “Your idealism will kill our mining business, Coleman. This mine has already been bankrupted between China’s domination and the freaking California environmentalists.” The resentful expression on Minsk’s face showed I was as direct as a knife to the heart.
“The geopolitical supremacy goes far deeper than rare earth metals,” I muttered without mentioning the threat of racing to use precious minerals to be the superpower of AI for combat. I gulped down the water and helped myself to a second cup. “As you know there’s nothing rare about them. The hard part is how to extract, process, and use them in non-harmful ways.”
Silently, I thought how two places accepting Pentagon funding to extract rare earth metals from the ailing planet are raging with fires: California and Australia.
But Mr. Minsk didn’t seem to notice my annoyed look or what I said. He pointed out the window toward the mine, backdropped by the rugged Clark Mountain Range. “Those men you see out there laboring—there’s two hundred of them. American heroes!” he exclaimed. He moved his eyes over the large open pit, as if looking for a response through his men bulldozing the area to extinction.
I cringed but remained silent. American heroes. That’s what the coal mine called my dad and the other men they put into harm’s way to extract more of the planet’s resources than it can regenerate.
I made a mental note to visit the mine’s other executives in Las Vegas before my spa treatment. I’ll reward myself for perhaps enlightening them. “It’s simple, Minsk. We need to defund America’s war machine to survive as a country. We’re now seeing our communities treated like war zones from militarizing our police. The Pentagon will only get our nation deeper into—”
“For Christ’s sakes Coleman, we already had President Crown down our back, urging the Pentagon to shut off our funding due to our reliance on China. We just got the funding back, after he changed his mind and wants the supply chain moved to American soil. What the fuck happened to you—the last we spoke you were clamoring for REE’s for your own military apps—”
“What the fuck happened to me? I got shot by top military officials for pulling out of Pentagon funding. That’s what happened. I’m telling you this for your own good, man. Once you start tap dancing the money trail for military weapons, you’re not free to get out. Focus on medical imaging machines, ventilators, smart phones, more than smart bombs.”
Minsk’s face contorted, and he made a snorting sound. “That’s a sizable chunk of revenue, Coleman. We’d go bankrupt like this mine did before we bought it from Molycorp if we don’t take funding from the defense sector—you realize the Pentagon also funds R&D for medical technologies?”
“For what, the next generation of warfare?”
Minsk’s eyes moved toward the large window. “See those huge white bags out there? They’re all shipped to China for processing. One hundred percent of our REEs are still reliant on China until we get our processing facility operational. We have to go with the money flow—”
“That’s how I thought before I got shot three times…. No four times. The first bullet just missed my head at another rare earth mine that you urged me to visit last year—”
“Wait… I read in the news about you getting shot up bad. But nothing about someone taking aim at you in Inner Mongolia.”
“It was covered up, like our faces are now with these masks—the result of all this environmental destruction—”
Minsk slapped both hands on his desk and stood up. “Did you drive all this way to give me a lecture on how I run my business and to blame the Cloud Virus on mining?
“No, mining is only part of the problem. There’s bombing, drilling, spilling toxic waste and—”
“Enough! I get the picture already.”
In my briefcase—which I left in the car—I had photos of the destruction in the Middle East caused by U.S. militarization. It tempted me to show the pictures of dead children, women, and men to Minsk, but the secrecy of the mission would only get me into more trouble. Steve was still standing, a sign the meeting was done.
I stood, took the copies of photos from my pocket, and slapped them down. “A sampling of what US militarization is causing domestically. Business is a battlefield. I hope this doesn’t happen to you.”
And with that, I left, letting Steve examine pictures of my hot tub turned into a bloodbath.