I'm writing a new book. (Or more accurately, I'm finishing one I half-wrote a few years ago.)
The Prometheus Option
Blackfriar Skyreach, London, August 17, 2029
“Just relax,” said Aidan.
Peter Struve glared across the elevator at him. “I’ll relax when it’s over. Not before.” He sighed heavily. “Did you know this is the thirty third time we've done this?”
“I haven't been keeping track,” Aidan lied.
“Thirty two demos, thirty two excited potential investors, and a day later the phone call or the email. Thanks but no thanks. Jesus Christ, Aidan, what do I have to do?”
Aidan shook his head. “You look like you slept in that suit,” he said, deliberately changing the subject.
“Goddamn it,” Peter growled as he looked down at himself. “I just had it pressed. I’ve... lost some weight.”
“More weight, you mean,” Aidan said. He knew better than to press the point. Peter looked like he’d just been spent nine months in the jungle living on grubs and termites instead of flying around the world trying to secure funding. His knobby Roman nose jutted out from his gaunt face like the prow of an ancient ship. The bags under his eyes were even darker than usual. His thinning brown hair was drawn back into a ponytail, revealing a prematurely wrinkled forehead. Peter looked seedy, but Aidan couldn’t tell him that--especially right before a demo. He sighed and kept his silence.
The elevator hummed as it began to slow down.
Peter whispered, “You’re sure it will work?”
Aidan nodded. “It always does, doesn’t it? They said there would be plenty of light. Break a leg.” It had better work, he thought, or we’re dead in the water.
Peter pursed his lips into something like a smile. “I don't know how you can be so confident.”
Aidan tried to think of a suitable reply. “I'm confident... because I have to be. She's our last chance.”
A soft chime announced their arrival on the 115th floor. The elevator doors slid open noiselessly.
Aidan followed Peter out, clutching the handle of his heavy briefcase with his left hand.
Blackfriar Skyreach might be the tallest megatower in Europe, but its interior was a throwback to the art-deco lavishness of the 1920s. The grand foyer of the penthouse office suite would have looked right at home in the Chrysler Building. Three hallways with high arched ceilings radiated away from the foyer. The floor was a mosaic of marble with silver inlay, depicting the graceful tower in which they stood. The obviously hand-blown glass wall lamps spaced along the walls were shaped like lilies with mottled orange petals. Aidan nodded appreciatively. Frank Lloyd Wright mixed with Maxfield Parrish.
A thin young man in a black suit was waiting for them.
“Mr. Struve?” he said, smiling at Aidan.
“He’s Mr. Struve. I’m Aidan O’Keefe.”
The young man smoothly turned to Peter. “My apologies, sir. I’m Ralph Donaldson, Madame Delamater’s personal assistant,” he said with an impeccable Etonian accent. “Please follow me to the conference room, gentlemen.” He led them to the broad double doors at the end of the hall and ushered them inside.
Peter stopped in the doorway.
Aidan jerked to a halt behind him. “Steady,” he whispered into Peter's ear. He looked over his CEO's shoulder into the huge conference room. It was dominated by a long hardwood table surrounded by at least twenty high-backed chairs. The high ceiling was a featureless plane of softly glowing whiteness. The only nod to the art deco style of the building was the intricate design of the wooden parquet floor.
Sunlight streamed in through the seamless glass walls. Not glass, Aidan realized with a start. Duraglass. The windows had the iridescent sheen of nanotube mesh. The panels might be thin, but they would stop a .50 caliber round. Given the state of the stock market, they might have been installed simply to keep suicidal investors from taking the long plunge down to the Thames.
London stretched away to the horizon in every direction. The late afternoon sky was startling in its clarity. It was almost cloudless, and even the omnipresent haze of pollution seemed to have taken a summer holiday.
Donaldson peered at Peter with concern. “Mr. Struve?”
“Ah,” Peter stammered. “I’m not good with heights.”
“My apologies.” Donaldson turned and spoke to the empty air. “Window control, full opacity.”
London faded out as the windows changed into softly glowing white panels identical to those of the ceiling.
“Thank you,” Peter breathed.
“Of course, sir.” Donaldson led them to the table. The air in the room was quite cool. “May I offer you drinks while you wait? Madame Delamater will join you in a few minutes.”
“Water,” Peter said, taking a seat on one side of the table.
“For me as well, thank you,” Aidan said. “And please bring three extra glasses and a shaker of salt, if you would.”
Donaldson’s smile grew puzzled, but he nodded. “As you wish, sir.”
When the door closed behind him, Peter let out a heavy sigh. “Goddammit, Aidan. You might’ve given me some warning.”
“Sorry. I didn’t know about the windows.” Aidan put his briefcase on the table and opened it. “They only said there would be plenty of light, and that’s all I wanted to know. Just relax.”
Peter snapped, “Quit saying that.”
“Sorry.” Aidan removed a trio of small but heavy black plastic boxes from the briefcase and placed them gingerly on the table in front of Peter. He looked around the room. “Very Stanley Kubrick,” he said after a moment. “The ceiling is probably duraglass too. If it is, it’ll make the demo easier.” He closed the briefcase, put it on the floor, and took the chair next to Peter’s.
“Is it humid enough?” Peter asked, putting his hand atop the closest of the boxes. “The air conditioning seems to be on high.”
Aidan glanced at the narrow vents lining the base of the windows. “Good question,” he murmured. He pulled his phone from the inside pocket of his suit coat and tapped its smooth black surface. A shiny silver Apple logo appeared for an instant, quickly replaced by a grid of tiny glowing icons. Aidan tapped one and read the screen. “Sixty eight degrees and 40 percent relative humidity. We’re fine.”
“Soggy old England. Good to see some things never change.”
Aidan put his phone back into his pocket. “You look like you just escaped from a concentration camp. When we’re done, we’re going to Blake’s, and I’m going to watch you stuff yourself until you pass out.”
“If she gives us the money, I might actually have an appetite again.”
The doors opened, and Aurore Delamater strode in.
Aidan and Peter stood as she crossed the conference room toward them. She was a handsome woman, Aidan thought, and younger than he had expected her to be--in her early fifties, he guessed. Her lustrous black hair was put up in a demure bun, and her blue eyes flashed with intelligence. Her black business dress reached nearly to the floor, obscuring her legs completely. Aidan felt a stab of resentment at the mournful puritanism that had dominated European women’s fashions since the end of the Rice War. He hadn’t seen a decent pair of legs since arriving in England.
Delamater smiled frostily. “I am delighted to meet you at last, Monsieur Struve,” she said, holding out her hand. Her accent was a seamless blend of Parisian and upper-crust British.
Peter shook her hand, rather awkwardly, Aidan thought. “Thank you. This is Doctor O’Keefe, my chief technical officer.”
Aidan bowed over her hand in the European fashion. “Very pleased to meet you, Madame.”
“I regret that I only have about half an hour,” she said. “Shall we begin?”
“By all means,” Peter said.
She rounded the nearest end of the table and took a chair on the opposite side.
Peter and Aidan waited until she was seated before sitting down themselves.
She favored them with a dispassionate gaze. “Well, Monsieur Struve. My niece tells me that your company has developed something very new and exciting. I hope you will forgive me if I remain skeptical. Althea can be overly enthusiastic at times.”
Aidan stopped himself before he could nod agreement. Althea Delamater was an exceptional chemist, but no one could deny that she was flighty. Still, StruvePharma was well past the point of grasping at straws for money by the time she approached them with the idea of meeting her aunt--the head of one of the most secretive investment groups in Europe.
Peter said, “I’m grateful that you agreed to see us, Madame. I promise that you won’t be disappointed.”
Ralph Donaldson appeared in the doorway, carrying a silver tray bearing glasses and a crystal pitcher of ice water. “Pardon me,” he murmured as he placed drinking glasses on the table and filled them with waiter-like efficiency. He put the three empty glasses, the pitcher, and the shaker of salt next to Aidan and departed with a bow, closing the door behind him.
“We’ve been working on this idea for more than twenty years,” Peter said. “When my father died and left the company to me, I decided to devote all of our resources to making it work. It was a gamble, but it’s finally paid off.”
Delamater said, “Bankrupting StruvePharma in the process.” Her voice was flat with disapproval.
“We’ve had our share of difficulties.”
“More than your share, it seems,” she snapped. “You produced cures for malaria and dengue fever, not to mention a male contraceptive. You had eleven billion dollars in revenues in 2018, and six billion in cash. Then your father died, you took over, took the company private, and the profits disappeared. By 2020 you were barely breaking even, and two years later you had to sell the rights to your father’s inventions just to stay afloat. Now you’re at the point of selling the company’s assets to make your payroll. It’s as if you mean to drive the company under.”
Peter’s jaw clenched.
Aidan said quickly, “I’m sure it looks bad from your perspective, Madame.”
Delamater turned her cool gaze on him. “From any perspective, Doctor O’Keefe.”
Peter drew a deep breath and expelled it slowly. “It does. There’s no point in denying it. But when I show you what’s in these three boxes, I think you’ll change your mind, Madame.”
She glanced at her watch incuriously. “You have twenty five minutes.”
Peter picked up the box closest to him. He tilted it and pressed a hidden catch on one end. A transparent block of plastic, one by four by nine inches, slid out onto his palm. It was featureless except for a gray circle an inch in diameter in the middle of one of its broad faces.
Aidan glanced upward. “Madame, I was told that this room had ample sunlight. Would you mind? Just the ceiling, please.”
She nodded and said loudly, “Ceiling control, transparent mode.”
As Aidan had suspected, the ceiling was duraglass as well. Mid-afternoon sunlight streamed down onto the conference room table. They all blinked against the sudden brightness. The air conditioning audibly cranked up a notch to compensate. Aidan hoped it wouldn’t interfere with the demo. He handed Peter one of the empty glasses.
Peter put the glass on the table in front of him and centered the plastic block on top of it, the gray circle face-up. He slid it across the table to Madame Delamater. “Press the button, but be careful not to touch it anywhere else.”
She eyed Peter speculatively for a long moment before doing so.
The top of the plastic block turned black.
“It takes a moment to get going,” Peter said.
“What is this?” she asked waspishly.
Aidan’s heart began to beat hard against his breast bone. He’d supervised the construction of the demo units and seen them work a hundred times, but it always seemed to take them longer to start when a potential investor was watching.
After ten endless seconds, a clear liquid began to drip from the bottom of the plastic block into the glass. A few seconds later it turned into a thin stream.
“What is it?” Madame Delamater asked.
“Water,” Peter said with relish. “Collected from the air of this room.”
Aidan nodded, pleased. If Peter was still nervous, he no longer showed any sign of it.
Delamater sat back in her chair, looking at both of them in turn. “Water. So?”
That’s my cue, Aidan thought. “This is a very special device, Madame. It’s powered by light and it has no moving parts. The deliquescent membrane pulls pure water straight out of the air. Don’t touch the black surface. It can take water from your skin just as easily. It causes a nasty burn. I speak from experience.”
Madame Delamater’s expression went blank. “Again, so?”
Peter leaned forward. “If you were in the middle of the Sahara Desert and you needed water, you could use one of these to get it. The bigger the collector, the faster it condenses.”
Aidan said, “We installed one of these on the roof of my cabin in the hills near Sedona, Arizona. It’s about eight feet on a side. It’s very dry there, but it’s sunny. On an average day it collects about three hundred gallons of water--about eleven hundred liters. It goes into a cistern under the building. I haven’t had to use the well pump since we installed it.”
Madame Delamater frowned. “I see. Useful, I suppose, if not especially dramatic.”
“We’re just getting started,” Peter said with a smile. “Please press the gray button again.”
She did so, and the flow of water dribbled to a stop. The glass was about half full.
Peter removed the demo unit from the top of the glass and put it back into its case.
Aidan took the half-full glass, unscrewed the top of the salt shaker and dumped about half its contents in. He picked up the glass and rocked it to set the water into a spinning motion. Undissolved salt produced a tiny white tornado. He put the glass back on the table.
Peter had already removed the next demo from its case. It was another transparent plastic block, but this one had two plastic tubes coiled into circular recesses on the bottom side. Peter placed one of the two remaining empty glasses next to the one half full of saltwater. He then placed the demo block atop both glasses, allowing the plastic tubes to uncoil down into them.
Peter pressed the gray button on top of the demo unit. The top of the block turned black. Almost immediately the level of the salt water in the half-full glass began to drop. Clear liquid began to drip into the empty glass next to it a few seconds later.
Aidan said, “It’s a lot easier to purify salt water than to pull it out of the air.”
Madame Delamater’s face remained expressionless, but Aidan thought he saw a glimmer of interest in her eyes. She said, “How does it work?”
Before Aidan could open his mouth, Peter said, “That’s our little secret. For now. If you decide to invest, you’ll learn more.”
“But not all?”
Peter’s lips quirked up into a short-lived smile. “There are only three people who know it all, and two of them are in this room. We’re playing these cards very close to our vests.”
There was a soft electronic beep from the demo block.
“It’s done,” Aidan said. He pressed the gray button. The block resumed its normal transparency, and there was a slurping sound as water drained out of the tubes. He shook a few droplets out, coiled the tubes and carefully slid the block back into its case.
“Care to taste it?” Peter asked.
Delamater’s smile was a few degrees warmer now. “You first.”
Aidan picked up the fuller of the two glasses and took a swallow. He couldn’t help making a face. “Distilled, deionized water doesn’t taste like much of anything, but there’s no salt in it.” He put the glass down and pushed it across the table to her.
Madame Delamater took an experimental sip and grimaced. “True on both counts.”
Peter said, “You can imagine the potential. Ships at sea will have an endless supply of fresh water. Cities near the ocean won’t need to rely on wells or rivers. This will completely replace current desalination technology. All the energy that used to go into boiling seawater could be used to pump it inland instead. The deserts could bloom. And right now we need all the arable land we can get.”
“Interesting,” Madame Delamater said. She sat back, rested her elbows on the arms of her chair and steepled her fingers in front of her face. “Quite interesting. But not exactly what I was expecting from a pharmaceutical company.”
Peter said, “We’ve... diversified.”
Aidan suppressed a grin.
“The first two demos were just to establish that we’re serious. We saved the best for last.” Peter removed the third demo block from its case and placed it on top of the sole remaining glass. “Would you care to do the honors?” he asked, sliding the glass toward Madame Delamater.
“Why not?” She pressed the button. Closely-spaced lines of rainbow light began to sweep across the top of the demo block. “Very pretty,” she said.
Peter said, “Lean down so you can look through the block from the side.”
She did so, peering with evident curiosity at the delicate network of thin brown lines that began to appear in the transparent plastic. The lines grew darker by the moment, tracing delicate arcs through the block toward a point just below the gray button.
Peter said, “Water isn’t the only thing we can pull out of thin air.”
A small droplet of dark brown liquid began to gather on the bottom of the block. It grew with agonizing slowness. After half a minute the quivering droplet finally succumbed to the pull of gravity. It plashed thickly against the bottom of the glass.
Delamater straightened in her chair and laughed. “And what is this? Tea?”
“No,” Peter said with great satisfaction. “It’s oil.”