Benjamin Blum, the father of modern robotics, was born in Israel in 1990. He was the eldest of five children. He had two sisters who were the next oldest, and two little brothers. His father was a poor Jewish farmer and very strict, while his mother had to work very hard to keep the children fed and clothed when money was scarce.
Benjamin was a very bright child who spent his free time tinkering in the barn with whatever broken-down equipment he could salvage before his father sold it for scrap. His father often criticized him for having his head in the clouds, and it was his goal that his son learn to work hard and make an honest living as a farmer.
As the oldest, Benjamin often had to miss school to help his father in the fields, and eventually he had to quit school entirely. He continued to tinker in the barn, but he never got to complete his schooling.
Benjamin’s father died prematurely — when Benjamin was just twenty-two years old. He died of cancer, though Benjamin convinced himself it was because his father had worked himself to death. He vowed that he would have a different life than his father.
Benjamin’s mother died a year later of a broken heart. As the eldest, Benjamin inherited his father’s farm, but he also inherited his father’s debt. Benjamin pleaded with his siblings to help him save the farm, but none of them was interested in the agrarian life their father had led. Both of his sisters had since married and moved away, and his brothers had found steady jobs working in customer support for an online gambling website.
His siblings’ refusal to help with the farm led to a bad falling out with his family. Unable to do all the work himself, Benjamin starting experimenting with a robot that could pluck the delicate fruit off a strawberry bush. Unfortunately, he became so obsessed with refining his machine that most of that season’s crop was eaten by pests or rotted before it could be harvested.
Benjamin eventually lost his father’s farm. He started a small company producing agriculture-focused robots, which he exported to the U.S. A few years later, when Benjamin was in his late twenties, a foreign investor approached Benjamin about expanding to the U.S.
Benjamin went to America and eventually moved the company headquarters to Silicon Valley. He met his wife there, and BlumBot International grew steadily over the next five years. He had two children — Mordecai and Ziva. Both were very bright, and Benjamin became laser-focused on providing them the sort of educational opportunities that he never had.
Benjamin’s wife died when his children were nine and twelve. He sank into a deep despair and began fighting with his son. He was frustrated that his son seemed oblivious to his privilege and that he didn’t seem to share Benjamin’s love of science and technology.
Mordecai was exceedingly intelligent, but he preferred theoretical knowledge over practical application. He spent his teen years with his head buried in his books. Ziva, on the other hand, shared her father’s love of robotics, and Benjamin doted on his daughter.
Both his children went to college in California, but Mordecai kept his distance while Ziva continued to stay in close contact with her father. The two would often share ideas and compare what they were working on, and Benjamin guided Ziva on her most ambitious projects.
When Ziva was in college, she was involved in a terrible car accident. The doctors had to amputate both of her legs above the knees, and she sank into a debilitating depression. Benjamin didn’t know how to help his daughter, so he retreated to his work, and the distance between them grew.
Ziva finished her degree, but she graduated without honors and without any job offers. Benjamin gave his daughter a job at his company. She buried herself in her work, though Benjamin could see that her life was completely devoid of joy.
Unable to help her, he took his frustration with life out on his son. He never paid any mind to Mordecai’s accomplishments, though his son graduated with honors cum laude and went on to get his master’s degree.
Eventually Ziva seemed to pull herself out of her depression. She began working out vigorously and threw herself even deeper into her work. This time, though, she had a spark in her that Benjamin hadn’t seen since the accident. Ziva had been working tirelessly to design the perfect prosthetic legs, and almost nine years after her accident, she finally succeeded.
Ziva’s design wasn’t just a breakthrough for amputees living with suboptimal prostheses. She and her father took her design and applied it to the fleet of bots that BlumBot was developing.
The results were tremendous. Ziva’s invention gave BlumBot’s creations the most lifelike and stable gait of any bots on the market. The company’s earnings tripled within a year, and Ziva began to take a larger role in the company.
Benjamin died in 2067. His house and his savings he left to his two children in equal measure, but his company he left to Ziva. This decision cut Mordecai to the core. Ziva tried to make amends with her brother by offering him a position within the company. Mordecai took it, but from that day on he distanced himself from his sister, both emotionally and physically.
He agreed to go to Russia to oversea BlumBot’s new fleet of nuclear disposal bots, while Ziva remained in California as CEO of BlumBot International.
In the early 2070s, the number of bots in operation around the globe increased exponentially. More and more robotics companies were springing up every day. BlumBot’s focus was and always had been producing the very best bots in the world, but Ziva could see that the company was rapidly losing market share to companies that could produce bots faster and more cheaply.
BlumBot was still a privately held company, but they needed capital to speed up production. Ziva invested all of her own money and asked Mordecai for his help in exchange for a thirty percent share of the company. He refused.
Ziva didn’t want to take BlumBot public. She didn’t want to pander to shareholders. All she wanted was to continue to make their bots better.
In 2073, she made the acquaintance of Tripp Van de Graaf. He, too was to inherit a tech dynasty. His father was Strom Van de Graaf — founder and CEO of Maverick Enterprises — and although Tripp was twenty years her junior, she instantly felt a connection to the magnetic young CXO.
Tripp was thrilled to meet Ziva. He was enthralled with BlumBot’s technology, and he’d been following the company for years. He knew all about BlumBot’s troubles, and he told Ziva that he wanted to buy the company.
At first, Ziva was resistant. She couldn’t see her father ever agreeing to sell and ceding control of the company. But to Benjamin, his work had always been about providing security for his family. What better way to do that than to sell the company for hundreds of billions?
To Ziva, all that really mattered was her work. She wasn’t in it for the money.
When Tripp told her that his company was going to space, Ziva was intrigued. Tripp shared his plan of bringing on an artificial workforce. The idea was to minimize the amount of supplies that needed to be sent from Earth to sustain the knowledge workers aboard the space station.
This idea erupted inside of Ziva like a fire. Her legs had given her back her life, and she believed wholeheartedly in the importance of artificial lifeforms. She believed that robots and humans could coexist in harmony, but she knew that people were resistant to this idea. She thought that if people could see what good bots could do in space, then maybe they would be more accepting of them in their daily lives.
The two young tech titans struck up a bargain. Maverick Enterprises would buy BlumBot International, but the company would function as an independent subsidiary. They agreed to keep Ziva on as head of robotics and find positions for all of BlumBot’s current employees, including Mordecai.
When Mordecai found out what Ziva had done, he was furious. Ziva argued that she had offered him an alternative, and he hadn’t taken it.
To Mordecai, Ziva’s offer of thirty percent ownership had been an insult. Half of that company was rightfully his, and he resented his sister for keeping it from him. Mordecai grudgingly accepted his new position, but the chasm between him and his sister grew.
Strom Van de Graaf was born in Grand Marais, Minnesota, to a German-Catholic family in 2010. As a boy, Strom loved the great outdoors and spent his childhood hiking, canoeing, fishing, and cross-country skiing. His parents were busy entrepreneurs, and they believed that children should be given as much freedom as they could handle. As an only child, Strom usually spent his days alone in the woods or running around with the other boys in town.
The Van de Graafs owned The Lake Haus, a homey restaurant right on the banks of Lake Superior. It was a cornflower blue clapboard house with a cutout of a sailboat hanging from the sign.
Grand Marais was a small town, but since his parents’ restaurant was a favorite among locals and tourists alike, they’d always been comfortable. His parents owned a roomy log cabin–style home perched above the trees on the outskirts of town. Getting snowed in wasn’t an option for the restauranteurs, so the Van de Graafs owned two snowmobiles, which they would frequently ride into town when the weather was bad.
Strom’s father (also named Strom) had a vigorous work ethic, and he was practically a legend in the small lake town. “Strom’s place is never closed” had become a bit of a town joke, and so for most of Strom Junior’s life, a carved wooden sign bearing that saying hung over the entrance to the restaurant. (Strom Senior was a devout Catholic, and although it pained him to work on Sundays, he believed that idle hands were the devil’s playthings.)
In 2018, when Strom was only eight years old, a brewery and restaurant set up shop across the street from The Lake Haus. It was a trendy spot with homebrew IPAs on tap that served lamb sliders and bone marrow with bacon marmalade. Strom Senior hated the place.
When brewery patrons began taking up parking spaces outside his restaurant, he complained to the owner. So began a feud that would last for the next ten years.
The brewery began taking customers away from the Van de Graafs’ restaurant. The Lake Haus was more old-fashioned and served comfort foods and German standbys. Tourists wanted something more hip.
When Strom Junior was eleven, the owner of the bait and tackle shop next door retired, and Strom suggested to his father that they buy the building and turn it into a brewery.
Strom Senior thought his son’s suggestion to buy the building was a good one. It would stretch the family financially, but Strom knew he had to get creative if he wanted to stay in the black.
Strom Senior reopened the old bait and tackle shop as a health foods store to cater to the young urbanites who frequented the brewery across the street. Strom Senior and his wife Mia only had a handful of employees on staff, and they couldn’t afford to hire more, so Strom assigned his son the responsibility of manning the cash register in the health food store during the summer.
The store was a success, and two summers later, Strom used the proceeds to expand The Lake Haus and add a bar that served local beers. He also shared some of the proceeds with his son.
Taking such an instrumental role in turning the family business around gave Strom a sense that anything was possible. He’d developed his father’s work ethic and creativity in business.
Strom went off to school at the University of Chicago, double majoring in architecture and engineering. His father had saved enough to put his son through college, but Strom was poorly suited for academia. He found that he missed the great outdoors and the relative freedom he’d had in Grand Marais. He began to lose himself in his roommate’s virtual reality headset, venturing back to the shores of Lake Superior and the woods around his childhood home when he was supposed to be in class.
Strom found the virtual reality lacking, but it was just realistic enough to keep him hooked. After his second semester, he was already flunking out, but he stuck with it and hid his failing grades from his father, who had fallen seriously ill.
Strom returned home that summer and found that things were much worse than they’d been at Christmas. The Lake Haus was falling apart. They’d lost their long-time cook, and the replacement was turning out subpar food. What should have been minor repairs around the restaurant had not been attended to, and the place was beginning to look rundown. Strom Senior was extremely sick, and it was all Mia Van de Graaf could do to keep the restaurant running.
That summer, Strom threw himself into the family business. He reopened the health food store, which had had a “closed” sign hanging in the window for nearly two whole months. He fired the cook and hired someone else, running down the street to help during the lunch rush. He fixed squeaky steps, replaced rickety hand rails, and repainted the exterior of the building. He was so involved in the restaurant that he hardly stopped long enough to notice that his father was dying.
Strom Senior passed away at the beginning of August. Strom never cried. Deep down he felt that his father wasn’t really gone — that he was still alive in the walls of the restaurant. He just had to keep it all going.
Strom’s mother, destroyed by grief, went off to visit her sister in upstate New York. She assumed that her son would be returning to college, and he reassured her that he would find someone to run the restaurant in their absence.
Strom never returned to Chicago. He stayed in Grand Marais to work at the restaurant and the health food store. He grew his hair and beard out long.
He and his mother kept in touch, but he told her that he had returned to school and that she should stay at her sister’s house. Everything in Grand Marais was under control.
Despite Strom’s efforts, the restaurant was failing. The Lake Haus was hemorrhaging money and losing patrons in droves. A big chain grocery store had opened just a few miles away, and the Van de Graafs’ health food store was suffering, too.
When Mia received a notice that the family’s property taxes were overdue, she was surprised. Her husband had always handled that sort of thing. She called her son, who assured her that he would take care of it, but Strom Junior was in a panic.
He’d known that property taxes were due, but he hadn’t had the money to pay them. He’d fallen behind on payments for the bait and tackle shop that his father had bought. He’d bought it on a twenty-year loan, but the restaurant’s profits no longer covered the payments. Strom was struggling just to pay his skeleton staff and cover the rest of the restaurant’s overhead.
A few months later, his mother returned. She was shocked and appalled to learn that Strom was no longer in school and that he’d hid the family’s financial troubles from her. They cut their losses and sold the health food store, but they still didn’t have the money to salvage the restaurant.
Nine months later, when Strom was twenty-one, they were forced to close it. Heartbroken, Strom left Grand Marais and moved to Brooklyn. He got a job at a space architecture firm and immediately seemed to find his calling.
Though Strom had failed in academia, he was a quick learner. He also began to dabble in development. He was deeply interested in virtual reality, and one of his colleagues had worked to create the next-generation headsets he’d experimented with in college.
When his mother died, he returned to Grand Marais to clean out their house. After three years of being away, Grand Marais felt like a distant dream. The family restaurant was now a gift shop selling tacky T-shirts and magnets to tourists. All the places he’d loved as a child somehow seemed smaller, less technicolor.
He sold his parents’ home and moved back to Brooklyn. The firm where he’d worked had closed, but he decided to go into business with his friend and former colleague who’d designed the virtual reality headset. They used their combined knowledge to create a prototype for what would become the Optix and dubbed their company FutureWorx.
Around this time, when Strom was twenty-six, he met a young Italian interior designer named Alma. She was five years Strom’s junior, but they fell in love and married at the courthouse two months later.
For all his heartbreak over losing his family’s restaurant, Strom still had that entrepreneurial spirit. He was determined to earn back the money he’d lost plus enough to buy back the restaurant. He didn’t care what it cost. He would make the building’s new owners an offer they couldn’t refuse.
Partway through the development of the Optix, Strom and his partner had a falling out over creative differences. His partner left the company.
Three years later, Strom’s new company — Maverick Enterprises — released the Optix. The technology was a hit. Overnight, Maverick Enterprises was worth billions.
Strom bought back the building that had been The Lake Haus, but he didn’t reopen the restaurant. Alma was pregnant, and part of him was afraid that he would fail again. Even though they had more money than they knew what to do with, Strom still didn’t feel secure. He wasn’t convinced that he wouldn’t lose it all — not matter how much money he had.
This fear was magnified by the lawsuit against his company filed by his former partner. His partner claimed that the technology was his, though Strom eventually won in court.
Alma’s pregnancy ended in a miscarriage — the first of many that would rip the couple to shreds. Alma had stopped accepting design clients and had thrown herself into her art.
She painted for hours in the throes of grief, and she would often collapse in tears and beg Strom to come home in the middle of the day. She developed suicidal thoughts that would often morph into rage. Strom didn’t know how to handle his wife’s emotional turmoil. Sometimes he would rush home in a terror that he would walk in the house to find her dead.
The faster the Van de Graafs’ home life unraveled, the better Strom’s company did. He began to work longer and longer hours, and Alma withdrew to the bedroom to sleep her sadness away.
Although Strom and Alma were both desperate for children, they decided to stop trying. On Strom’s insistence, Alma went to see a doctor about her depression and began to recover.
Strom continued to grow Maverick Enterprises at a rapid pace. He returned to his love of space architecture and began developing a prototype for a space colony that he hoped to build one day.
When Strom was thirty-five, Alma became pregnant unexpectedly. At first the couple was overjoyed, but then Strom began to grow fearful. Alma had never managed to carry a pregnancy to term, but she’d been making great strides toward recovering her mental health.
Strom distanced himself from his wife throughout her pregnancy, terrified of what would happen if she were to miscarry.
As it turned out, he needn’t have worried. Alma carried the baby to term and gave birth to a health boy. They named him Tripp. Strom was overjoyed.
By this time, Maverick Enterprises was worth hundreds of billions. Strom wanted to take time off to spend with his son, but he feared that he could lose everything just as he’d done after his father had died. He threw himself deeper into his work. He convinced himself that Maverick Enterprises needed to be in California, but Alma wanted to stay in New York.
Strom built a new headquarters for the company in California, while Alma stayed behind to raise their growing boy. Strom bought a private jet to fly from coast to coast, but he was rarely with his family.
When Tripp was seven, Alma became pregnant again. Strom was terrified. His wife was in her late thirties, and he was not convinced they’d get so lucky as to have another healthy baby.
A few months in, they learned that Alma was pregnant with twins. Her doctor immediately put her on bedrest, and Strom hired two nurses to stay with her around the clock. Six months into her pregnancy, Alma went into early labor.
Strom came home in a panic. He took her to the very best hospital in New York, but the twins were in distress. They took Alma into an emergency C-section, but one of the twins was stillborn. Alma was devastated, and for once Strom stayed by her side.
He didn’t know how to explain what had happened to his now eight-year-old son. Strom barely knew the boy. A few days later, Alma died suddenly from a blood clot in her lungs.
Strom was in the room holding his baby daughter when she went into cardiac arrest. He stood in shock in the doorway as the doctors and nurses tried to revive his wife. It was too late.
Alma’s death nearly destroyed Strom. He threw himself even deeper into his work and hired a nanny to care for his children around the clock. Maverick Enterprises expanded the capabilities of the Optix and continued its push for space development. Strom had been an early investor in satellite technology and space cargo delivery systems.
When Tripp turned twelve, he started asking Strom if he could move to California and stay with him. Strom didn’t know how to tell his son no, so he agreed. He enrolled his young daughter in a New York boarding school for girls and took Tripp with him to California.
As it turned out, Strom deeply enjoyed having his son around. At times it was painful — Tripp had his mother’s dark coloring and curly black hair — but Strom almost relished the heartache. In the four years following Alma’s death, he’d felt numb to the world. At least with Tripp he was feeling something.
When Tripp was in his late teens, Maverick Enterprises contracted with the U.S. Military to build a space station dedicated to espionage. This was a game-changer for Maverick, and Strom knew it was only a matter of time before his company was building low-orbit colonies for civilians.
He bought a German logistics company to help build the colony, and when Tripp graduated from college, he brought his son on to help. He had inherited Strom’s business acumen and love of space, but he had his mother’s looks and artistic sensibilities.
As Tripp grew older and took on greater and greater responsibilities in his role at Maverick, his father began to allocate shares of the company that belonged to his son. He wanted Tripp to have a stake in his business the way he’d had in his father’s. Only this time, he wanted to guide his son so that he didn’t make the same mistakes a young Strom had made.
The more Strom tried to guide and teach Tripp, the more they began to argue. They argued about the future of the colony they were designing, and they argued about Tripp’s little sister.
She had blossomed from a sweet little girl into a whip-smart juvenile delinquent. She’d been kicked out of one boarding school after another but managed to get into college due to her stellar test scores. Now she was in college and asking Strom if she could take a break to backpack around the world.
If Strom had had trouble dealing with his son at a young age, he had no idea what to do with his now twenty-year-old daughter.
Strom and Tripp continued to argue, but Strom could see that Tripp was passionate about the colony project. Tripp had invested his shares of the company to make upgrades to Elderon, and though he thought his son was foolish to care so much about the aesthetics of the colony, Tripp was determined to realize his vision.
But as the launch date for the shuttle that would take civilians to Elderon drew closer, Strom and Tripp’s arguments grew more and more bitter. Strom stood firm on certain security measures, and when Tripp tried to go over Strom’s head to make additional upgrades to the space station, Strom came down hard on his son.
Strom had once planned to hand Tripp the reins to the company before he died, but company investors had had a front-row seat for all the fights between father and son. Many of them had lost confidence in Tripp, and Strom worried what his son’s leadership would do to the company he had dedicated his life to build. He could not let Tripp fail the way he had. He wouldn’t let him.