"Right," said Selfridge with a roll of his eyes. "Come here." He strode into his office, picked up a shiny gray stone off of a hovertray, and thrust it in front of Grace Augustine. "This is why we're here," he said. "Unobtainium. Because this little gray rock sells for twenty million a kilo. That's the only reason."
"Why?" said Augustine.
Selfridge blinked. "What?"
"I said, why?" said Augustine. "What's so valuable about this precious mineral? What does it do? I'd never even heard of it before I showed up on this station, but everyone here seems to think it's God's gift to mankind."
Selfridge chuckled. "Well, I wouldn't say that," he said. "It's specie, that's all. You probably heard about how the Martian Free State delinked from the Galactic dollar a few years back, because Paul Ronne persuaded them that fiat currency was a dead-end proposition?"
Augustine frowned. "No."
"Oh," said Selfridge. "Well, anyway, they did. And they had to pick something to back their new currency with, so they picked unobtainium; there's a bunch of it on Phobos, apparently. So, if Earth wants to engage in trade with Mars – and she does, believe me – she has to have a pile of unobtainium of her own. Simple economics."
"Is that what it's for?" said one of the officers, glancing up with a look of puzzlement. "I thought it was an energy source of some kind. Cleaner than coal, but just as efficient – just what Earth's been needing for centuries."
"Wait a second," said a second officer. "Something's wrong here. It's the medicinal properties that are important about unobtainium, isn't it? There's something in it that the Sirian Confederation desperately needs to combat that plague that's ravaging their…"
"No, no, no," said someone else impatiently. "It's a cerebral enhancer. You just implant a fragment of it inside someone's skull, and within a month you've tripled his I.Q."
It got hard to hear in the monitor room for a few minutes after that. Everyone within earshot chimed in on what they'd been told that unobtainium did, and, so far as the accounts could be made out, no two of them seemed to agree.
In the midst of the din, Augustine gave Selfridge a long, scathing look, then snatched the stone out of his hand and strode from the room. She was back in fifteen minutes, a satisfied smirk on her face. "Tell me something, Selfridge," she said. "Did you ever read a 20th-Century novel called The Restaurant at the End of the Universe?"
Selfridge shook his head.
"Didn't think so," said Augustine. "Well, there's this part in it where the heroes find themselves on a giant spaceship called a 'B Ark' containing all the most useless people on a planet. Apparently they'd been told that they needed to go colonize a new planet because their old one was doomed – but actually the planet was doing fine, and the real point of the scheme was just to get rid of all the deadweight in their population." She raised an eyebrow. "Sound familiar?"
There was a deadly silence, as everyone in the room remembered the overcrowded Earth they'd come from. It took Selfridge a few seconds to work up the nerve to clear his throat and say, "So what are you saying?"
"I'm saying," said Augustine, "that I just ran your precious Martian specie through a mass spectrometer, and it's nothing but galena. Cubic lead sulfide, Selfridge; there's tons of it already on Earth, there's nothing clean or energic about it, and no-one in his right might would implant it in his head or use it as medicine. Which means that your little project – your entire company – has been a complete charade from beginning to end, and the only people who are doing anything important on this moon are me and my associates. So," she concluded, tossing the stone back to Selfridge (who dropped it with a clatter onto the floor), "in the future, if you have any complaints about the way I'm running things, go outside and find some titanotheres to tell them to. My calendar's booked."
And she turned and strode out again, wearing the smile of the newly liberated, and leaving a roomful of speechless military-industrialists behind.
It was fully three minutes before anyone got up the nerve to murmur, "So, who gets to tell Quaritch?"
Disclaimer: Vishnu possessed ten avatars, James Cameron possesses one Avatar, and I possess no Avatars. This is known as inequality of wealth distribution. The best you can do is learn to live with it.
Image disclaimer and elucidation: This story's cover image was made (from stills from Avatar - see above - and CNN News, which I also don't own) on 30 August 2020. At the time, CNN was being satirized from coast to coast for describing the riots that were visibly burning a city down behind their correspondent as "mostly peaceful protests", so I couldn't resist gracing this story with a similar parody reading, "Mostly Harmless Planet Invades Pandora." (Unfortunately, the site's automatic image truncation only left part of the banner visible, which is why I'm having to explain the joke here. It's still worth it, though.)