by David McLeod
Microscopic Carbon and a Big Ship
On the Global Explorer, science, espionage, and environmental activism meet Sea Cadets enrolled in a United Nations science program. The goal of the Explorer's crew? To save the world from global warming, widespread hunger, pollution, post-Soviet Russian thuggery, and a myriad things adults created but that their children must solve.
Anconia Corporate Headquarters, Fairfax, Virginia. Early 21st Century. Earth Analogue IX.
"Mr. Anconia? Geneva is on the line. There is a wire transfer pending to the Newport News Shipyard. The amount is four billion dollars. It was initiated by Alexander Anconia."
Francisco Anconia lifted a finger to acknowledge his senior accountant's words, and then picked up the telephone handset. The caller ID showed a secure call from his son.
"Hello, Father. I've just committed four billion dollars . . . and I'll need another two before it's over."
"Just a moment, son." The man turned to his accountant. "The order of transfer was, indeed from Alexander; approve it, please, Mr. Morgan. There will be others. I'll give you more information, shortly."
The accountant whispered a brief, "Yes, sir," and left the room. Four billion dollars in a single transaction? Even for the Anconia family that is some kind of record, I think.
Mr. Anconia returned to his son's phone call.
"Your mother and I enjoyed the pictures of you on the ski slopes. I see that Montana got snow a bit early this year. Your little sister wants to know if the boy with you is your boyfriend and if we will go skiing with you and him when we visit for your birthday and her school winter holiday."
"Dad! I'm fifteen years old. I'm much too young to have a boyfriend. And she's only twelve, and shouldn't be thinking—"
"Dad, about the money . . . " Alexander interrupted his own words.
"Mr. Morgan will see that your wire is honored, of course," his father said, "and I promised him information about the remaining amount. We owe him that information, son. He's too old for such surprises. Please send the information by secure fax, won't you? Now, about the holiday. I told—"
"Don't you want to know what it's for?"
"Mr. Morgan said it was payable to a shipyard in Virginia. I assume you're buying a ship."
"Dad! What kind of ship costs more than four billion dollars?"
"I would think a warship, probably nuclear powered. How are you going to manage to license a nuclear reactor for a civilian ship, by the way?"
"Actually, Dad, she has twin reactors, and she'll run for 20 years without refueling. And the license will be through the United Nations."
"Twin reactors . . . sounds like a pretty big ship."
"Nimitz class aircraft carrier, Dad. More than 300 meters long. She was being built for the Saudis, but they missed too many progress payments and angered the Secretary of the Navy and the President. The Navy was on the hook for payments, and happy for the shipyard to sell her. She's about six months away from completion, but there are some changes I want to make. It will probably be a year before she's ready to sail."
The fax on Mr. Anconia's credenza spit out a single page. He removed it from the tray, scanned it for a moment, and laid it on his desk.
"Your fax just came in. You'll need more than another two billion. And there's no provision for operational costs or crew pay."
"I have some other financing lined up. I'll tell you about that when you come out for the holiday. The university will pay the science crew's salaries, and their room and board. That will take care of the cooks and bottle washers for the crew, as well. The US Navy and the UN will kick in some money, too. They don't know that, yet."
Other financing that he can't talk about over a secure phone, even though he mentioned the Navy and the UN, Francisco Anconia thought, and pushed that aside for later.
"I look forward to learning more. Your mother will send you our itinerary. And I can't wait to see the only fifteen-year-old in the world who owns an aircraft carrier."
Actually, I didn't own the carrier, and had not been directly involved in the purchase—until it came time to release the funds. Negotiations with the Navy, the State Department, the shipyard, and the United Nations had been carried out by two retired admirals and a former Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, the Court of St. James, and the UN. They and eight other family members—aunts, uncles, and cousins one or two generations removed—made up the board of HyperSki. They all knew what my father had accomplished beginning when he was my age. They were all willing to "ride the Alexander Anconia train" even though sometimes, it wasn't clear—even to me—where I was taking it.
Anconia Family Homestead, near Whitefish, Montana. A few weeks later.
Alexander drove a huge SUV to the airport. The vehicle was quiet, and did not vibrate. Its four, in-wheel motors were electric. The batteries and the software control system were products of Anconia Industries—and of Alex's mind. Alex would not be sixteen years old until the following week, and did not have a driver's license. It didn't matter: the airport, his family's home, and the road were all within the boundaries of the Anconia homestead.
Francesca was the first down the air stairs, and ran into her brother's arms. Alexander lifted her, and squeezed her tightly. One hug was enough, apparently—the little girl squirmed to be released.
"Where's your boyfriend?" she demanded.
"Don't have a boyfriend," Alex said. "Just a girlfriend."
To his sister's widened eyes, Alex added, "You!"
"Oh, you're silly," she said. But, she smiled at her brother.
Alexander's little brothers, ten-year-old triplets swarmed him and knocked him into the snow beside the tarmac, screaming "Alex! Alex! You sent us snowboards! Does that mean you're going to take us—"
Alexander managed to get his arms around two of the boys, but as soon as he reached for the third, one would escape, grab a handful of snow, and push it into Alexander's face or down the front of his parka.
"Enough, children." Their mother's voice was soft, but penetrated the noise. The little boys helped Alexander stand, and brush off the snow—that which wasn't melting inside the parka.
Alexander dutifully kissed his mother's cheek, and accepted her hug. "I'm wet, Mama! And these three . . . "
Alexander turned to the giggling cluster that was his brothers. " . . . these three are going to find that revenge is sweet!" The giggling increased.
Mr. Anconia offered his hand but as soon as Alexander took it, pulled the boy into a bear hug.
"This is your electric test-bed," Mr. Anconia said, unnecessarily, to his son. "The specs looked good. How are the batteries holding up?"
"Not as well as I had hoped, especially in the cold. Have some ideas, though. Speaking of cold, shouldn't we get in?"
"My dollies!" Francesca protested.
"The crew will see to your dollies," Mrs. Anconia said. She turned to her son. "May we stop at the grove, first? It looks as if the weather might turn." She looked to the west where gray clouds were spilling over the mountains.
The triplets insisted on buckling into the single seat beside Alexander, and chattered constantly.
Generations of Anconias had marked family events in the grove since Alexander's six-greats grandmother had planted the acorns she had brought from Greece. A tree was planted for each new member of the family—wives and husbands on their wedding day, children on their sixth birthday. In modern times, the acorns were started in a greenhouse upon posting of the banns or at a child's birth.
The grove was also the site of the family cemetery.
Alexander looked at the sign he had carved when he was twelve:
It was the family motto.
"Who's that?" Francesca asked, pointing toward a particularly large oak.
"Where?" her mother asked.
"It was Alexander's boyfriend!" the little girl said, and giggled. "He was cute!"
Alexander was a second faster than his father in pressing a button on his modified iPhone. Within seconds, two black SUVs had reached the edges of the grove. Men and women dressed like SWAT members ran from the vehicles and surrounded the family. The team's guns and eyes were pointed outward.
The people surrounding the family didn't just look like SWAT members; they were SWAT members: the best of the best from cities across the USA. And they were intensely loyal to the Anconia family. Each one of them and his or her family had been removed from a dangerous, high-crime city and offered the relative safety of the Anconia's modern company town. Their children attended safe schools. The team members' wives and husbands shopped in safe stores. Their families played in safe parks and safe playgrounds. The members of the security team knew they were an important part of maintaining that safety, not just for the Anconias, but also for their own families.
The team leader looked at Mr. Anconia. He gestured to Alexander.
"My sister saw a figure duck behind that tree," Alexander said.
The team found nothing. No one said anything about a little girl's imagination. No one was going to ignore the possibility that she might have seen someone, despite the lack of footprints in the snow.
"We'll sweep the compound, sir." The team waited until the family was in the SUV and it was underway before they safed their weapons.
After supper, Alexander took his father into the bunker that lay under the ground beside the main house. The bunker was a relic of the cold war, built by Alexander's grandfather. After the cold war, Alexander's father and then Alexander had kept it stocked against a natural disaster—and used it as a secure meeting room.
Alexander and his father sat facing a television screen on which images accompanied Alexander's briefing.
"The aircraft carrier that was to have been named Prince Faisal will be christened Global Explorer and will become a science ship," he said.
"The principal science package will be sensors to measure sea temperature, salinity, pH, electrical conductivity, and turbidity. Sensor clusters will be attached at intervals to a 12,000-meter cable.
"That's why I needed such a big ship. The cable will be wrapped around a drum more than 200 meters long. It will lie on its side below decks."
"Twelve thousand meters. With sensors attached. You've found a material that strong." Mr. Anconia said. It was not a question.
"Carbon nanotubes, Father," Alexander said. "It's something we developed at HyperSki. The patents were filed beginning at 10:00 AM Eastern Standard Time this morning while you were airborne.
"We've already renovated the old wire mill in Great Falls to begin production and have contracts with the Navajo Nation for coal, which is our raw material. Their coal has less sulfur than stuff closer by, and the cost of shipping will be more than offset by cheaper and cleaner processing. Eventually, we'll begin atmospheric carbon dioxide sequestration, and use that carbon, exclusively.
"The Navajo are working with us on the sequestration project, by the way. They know that burning coal creates multiple problems, and that the supply isn't infinite. And they have lots of land that is suitable for little more than solar energy farms.
"The cable for the ship will start coming off the main production line in less than two weeks. We already have other production lines in operation. We're starting small: skis and snowboards, of course; fishing rods; tennis rackets; golf clubs. The snowboards I sent the Triple Terrors were the first off the line.
"As soon as people understand what we've got, and that we've got a huge production facility, we'll be ready to take orders for cable, construction beams, railroad tank cars, pipelines, automobile body parts, you name it. Eventually, I'm thinking of a space elevator."
Alexander's face was flushed when he finished.
"Alexander?" his father said. "When I was sixteen, I had left the ranch and was working—not using my real name—in a copper mine. By the time I was eighteen, I owned that mine.
"You are not I, and you have chosen another path. I am glad. My father was not disappointed that I broke with family tradition, and went into the mining business. When he left the ranch to you in his will, it was because he knew how much you loved it. It was not to punish me."
"I know that, Dad," Alexander said. "He told me, you know. I was only eight, but I remember that."
Francisco Anconia smiled at his son, and then continued. "It seems to have become a rule that the first generation—that was my father—makes the family fortune; the second generation consolidates it; and the third generation squanders it. It happened to the Vanderbilts, and many others.
"I am glad you have taken a path—even one I do not completely understand—that will prove that the Anconia family is different."
At that moment, the telephone beside Alexander rang. It was the security chief. "Sir, we've checked all the video and swept the entire compound. There's no one here who's not supposed to be, and all of the youngsters were confirmed to be in school at the time of the sighting."
Alexander thanked the man. "Looks like Francesca saw a ghost," he said.
His father chuckled. "Your Greek many-greats grandmother might have thought so. She worshipped the old gods, you know, and believed in both spirits and in dryads who lived in the oak trees she planted. Have you ever read her diary?"
Alexander shook his head.
"Please do," his father said. "It's in the safe in my den. But, first please tell me about this other financing you couldn't talk about on a secure phone call."
Alexander grinned. "Actually, it's from you."
Before his father could react, Alexander continued. "You've turned over management of Anconia Foods to Uncle Carlos, and Anconia Minerals is being run by Uncle Ricardo."
"Am I going to like this?" Mr. Anconia asked.
"Oh, yes, Father" Alexander said. "You see, the science mission is just the first layer of the onion. There will be other sensors that will report only to my computers. We will also troll for information on sites suitable for wild seafood farming and locations of sea-floor minerals."
"How did you talk Uncle Carlos into getting into the seafood business?"
"Numbers and dollars, Dad. His aquaculture operations produce about 50 metric tons of food per $100,000 of cost. Ocean fishing already produces about 90 metric tons for the same cost. We should be able to beat that by 20 or 30 metric tons."
"Those aren't the only numbers," Francisco Anconia said. "Last year, you were worried about sustainability. What changed?"
"Dad, I know that world fish catch dropped 18% between 1980 and 2010, even though there were more fishing boats out there—a lot more. I know that it's continued to drop, even though the government—a lot of governments—are hiding the actual numbers. I know the reason is that we—they—have overfished the traditional sources, like the Grand Banks. A few nations are taking action in their territorial waters or exclusive economic zones. Some of this may even make a difference. But Uncle Carlos and I will be looking at international waters, and at depths others cannot reach."
"Nanotube fishing nets?"
"Yes, sir. And more. And Uncle Carlos agrees with me on sustainability. We'll not overfish." And, some aggressive pricing will put out of business those who do, I thought.
"And, the fish we'll sell will really have Omega-3, because they will have lived in the deep and cold ocean, not like the farm-raised salmon from rivers and fiords that has flooded the market for years."
"And Uncle Ricardo? What convinced him? You two don't believe those stories about nuggets of minerals lying on the ocean floor like methane clathrates do."
Alexander laughed, but quickly sobered. "No sir, but we know that it is volcanism that separates metals and forms minerals, especially at the edges of tectonic plates. And there are a bunch of plate boundaries that are eons old, and we've got the only technology that can either find those sites or exploit them for the foreseeable future."
Chapter End Note: The data on the cost of seafood versus aquaculture and the declining catch because of overfishing is from a TED Talk by Jackie Savitz. Interested? Google "TED Talk Savitz." It's a very worthwhile way to spend 15 minutes.
The Anconia name and the story of Francisco working in a mine and eventually owning that mine, were inspired by Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged. If you have the time, I cannot encourage you strongly enough to read that book. The Anaconda Copper Company's "wire mill" in Great Falls, Montana, was real and, at one time, was home to the third tallest smokestack in the world.