First Prize, Environmental Science Fiction: Carbon

Illustration for article titled First Prize, Environmental Science Fiction: Carbon

Our rain gear hung from hooks lining the wall, dripping onto our galoshes. Most of us stood around Sproiles' desk while he leaned back in his chair, pointing to each of us in turn with a badly chewed pencil.


Photo by Chris Gold

"There's a Chinese company that's working on something new," said someone in the back. "Its reflector-based technology. They seed the upper atmosphere with sulphur."


Sproiles shook his head. The reporter knew enough to stop. "The Spanish proposed the same project five years ago. The loss of solar radiation would kill off too much biomass. No way the Chinese would get it to work. Next."

"The drought in Russia. Wheat prices are already up 50% this summer."

Sproiles gave an absent-minded nod. "It's an old situation, but one we should stay on top of. Keep tracking it, let's do an update. What else?"

"A story on London's new water locks?" The voice came from the corner. Sproiles seemed to at least consider that one.

"We already did a story on the Mumbai water locks. You'd have to find a new angle on it."


"Hey Sproiles, how did those locks work?"

The laughter that followed was about the only thing still dry in the newsroom.

"Poorly." More laughter. No place like a newsroom for gallows humor. "What else? We'll need something for a feature."


I hate the weekly ledes meetings. The pressure to perform in front of your coworkers makes you grasp at straws.

"I've got something," I said. Sproiles swiveled around in his chair to look at me. "Al-Jabra called me. Says he's got something new."


Sproiles narrowed his eyes. If his mother ever told him she loved him, I'm sure he'd ask for a second source. "Why would Al-Jabra call you out of the blue, Beedie?"

"We used to be close."

"How close?"

"He was the first person to call me Beedie."

I heard someone whistle low. I'd never told anyone in the newsroom I knew Ali Al-Jabra. I'd never done a story on Vermillion before. "You think it's something big?" Sproiles asked.


I tugged my ear. "He probably thinks he can use me to get some good press on whatever new toy Vermillion's building. He asked me to lunch tomorrow."

"Given our readership share, he's probably right." Sproiles swung his chair back around and jotted down my name on his notepad. "Take the lunch. Tell me what he says. Okay, who's doing the piece on the space elevator for us this month?"


Berkeley, 2005

"Your name is Beedie from now on. I've just decided." He hadn't even looked up from his massive text-book. I wasn't sure I'd heard him correctly, but next to me I saw Penny twirl a pinch of blonde hair and nod.


"Yeah. Beedie. It suits you."

"What?" I looked at both of them in surprise. "I said that I wanted a nickname, I didn't mean you could just give me one," I protested.


"Sorry, old man. No one get's their own way with these things." Ali grinned. I've never seen another smile like his. It could sell condoms to the pope. Ali's accent carried a slightly over-pronounced, English lilt. That, and his habit of calling people "old man" would have combined to make him seem vaguely dandyish, if they weren't so perfectly offset by that dangerous, piratical smile. I forgot what my objection had been. Penny rolled her eyes and left to order a coffee. I watched Ali's eyes follow her. He was tall and relaxed, like most CEOs I've known. I was short, nervous and intense, like most reporters. Perhaps, even then, our future careers were encoded in our phenotypes.

"You two in it for the long haul?"

"You mean marriage?"

Ali frowned. "Marriage? I was just talking about graduation."

I cocked an eyebrow, but his eyes had already turned back to his organic chemistry textbook.


"How can you read that stuff for four hours straight?" I asked.

"It's more interesting than you might think."

"And what the hell makes chemistry ‘organic', anyway?"

"Carbon," he said brightly. "It all comes down to carbon."

The restaurant was on 34th Street. Sproiles told me to expense the cab, but it was a walk I enjoyed, even in the rain. I checked the flood warnings and headed out. The top of the Empire State Building was obscured by the lower level of fog and cloud cover, her multicolored lights made gauzy by the mist. They were red and green, today, in honor of the holiday season.


Ali was already seated when I arrived, scanning the headlines on his phone. He stretched his hand out when he saw me.

"Beedie. Good to see you, old man." His eyes danced over me. "You almost are an old man, now, aren't you?"


"I guess we both are." But the reality was that Ali didn't look it at all. I suspected that was more a function of surgery than genetics. His hairline was fuller than it had been twelve years ago and his paunch hadn't grown. He was still lean and dark, a piece of sharpened obsidian. He'd allowed himself a few wrinkles and gray hair, but that was probably a tactical decision to lend himself gravitas rather than any lack of vanity. I, on the other hand, had both an impressive bald spot and gut. Too many late nights chasing a deadline, too many hours spent in an office chair.

"You look good," Ali lied. "How are you enjoying the news racket?"

I shrugged. "Not bad. How are you enjoying the CEO racket?"

He chuckled and ordered himself a beer, and a seltzer for me. He raised his eyebrows. "That still your drink?"


"For twelve years." We made small talk, he asked me if I'd seen the latest on the Kansas famine or the Russian drought. We wondered if the city would go through with its plan to evacuate the island south of Canal Street. I asked if he'd lost anyone when the London water locks burst.

"No, thankfully, we evacuated the office in time. Other companies weren't as lucky." He gave me an appraising look. "Done any freelance work lately? I always admired your blood diamond stories."


That surprised me. I hadn't written about diamonds since my drinking days. He was right, though, it was some of my best work. It had won me a Pulitzer, and very nearly got me killed.

"Exposés on the diamond cartels are great copy, but no one wants to read about how their engagement ring funded genocide."


Ali frowned. "But your work in Africa was so good. You really hurt the cartel, you know. Took a chunk off their stock price. Wasn't there an investigation?"

"Never went anywhere. No one was indicted. The cartel got some bad PR and had to change their name." I stood. I didn't know why his praise, or his disappointment, irritated me. "At a certain point, I got tired of hearing footsteps behind me. Look, Ali, if all you want to do is discuss the past-"


He put out a placating hand. "It's been a long time. I'd like for us to be friends again. I know you think it was all my fault-"

"This isn't about Penny," I snarled. That stopped him. I hadn't seen that look in his eyes since the funeral. "And yeah, it was all your fault. You changed, Ali. I don't know why Penny never saw that."


He folded his hands on the table and looked down. "Everyone changes."

"She didn't."

"She never got the chance," he murmured. He gazed out the window, watching the rain hit the pavement.


"Penny was killing herself trying to lobby for a dime-a-ton carbon tax. While her husband's company was bribing senators to kill it."

"We were one of two dozen companies lobbying against that bill, and I wasn't even CEO then. Should I have resigned in protest?"


"For starters."

Ali sighed. "The bill passed ten years later, anyway. I don't see what you're so mad about."


I threw my arm toward the window. "Bit late for that now, isn't it?"

Ali pursed his lips. He never got mad. Not even in college. He just got frustrated. He seemed to make some sort of internal calculation.


"We've got something, Beedie," he said quietly. "It'll change this."

"Your new carbon nanotubes? Or the Everbrite panels? And what do you think they'll do? Do you know how many whiz-bang projects I've reported? Carbon sequestration, reforestation, cloud seeding. Remember the space reflector? Ali, every Fortune 500 company has some secret Catastrophe project. They don't work. None of them have."


"Listen to me, Beedie. For old time's sake. I've got something we've kept under wraps."

I shrugged. "So what do you want from me?"

"I want to give it to you."

I blinked a few times. "Give it to me?"

"Yes." He flashed his old piratical smile. The kind that made you feel like the two of you were in on some big secret. "The exclusive. We're making a formal announcement in two weeks, I can give you everything if you embargo the story. Photos, a tour of the facility, quotes. You'll be the only outlet in the country to have it. Beedie, a scoop like this could rescue your career." His voice dropped to a whisper, and he looked away from me. "Call it my way of making amends."


It was the closest I'd ever heard him come to an apology.

And he was right. As much as I hated him for it, he was right. A scoop on Vermillion's new product would rescue my career. The truth was, I was ill-suited to the politicking required to get access to top-level execs. I hadn't had a significant interview in years.


But if Ali wanted to help me, it was only because there was something in it for him. Maybe his new project was a flop, and he needed a little good publicity to pump his stock up before bad reviews brought it back to earth. He'd played me before, I reminded myself.

"Sorry, Ali. I'll see you at the presser."

Berkeley 2006

The sunshine matched our mood. We stood in the back of the crowd, Penny waving a large placard that read "Stop Global Warming, Now!" while Ali and I made snide comments. When the former vice president got up to begin his speech the crowd erupted. I don't remember what he said that day, only how we felt afterward. That the problems our parents had been unable to confront would be left to us, but that we'd face them so much more bravely than they had, that we'd be so much wiser, more willing to sacrifice, more clear-eyed.


Drunk on optimism we stumbled into the last lecture. He wasn't the most well known speaker that day, but he was one of the few actual climate scientists. I don't remember his name. But I remember almost everything he said.

"You can't be serious," Penny had said to him after he finished his Powerpoint presentation. "Prop 87-"


"Prop 87 won't pass," he said quietly. He hardly moved as he spoke. He barely even mumbled. He looked like a beaten man. "And even if it does it would only provide $4 billion for clean energy. That's about half the cost of an aircraft carrier. Hardly enough to pay for the wind energy we'd need to power California."

"But what about clean carbon?" someone to my left asked. "Or carbon capture systems on smokestacks?"


The speaker shook his head. "Interesting technologies, but irrelevant. They might slow down the rate of increase of carbon emissions, but that's like saying you've shrunk the hole in the bottom of your canoe. We're still sinking, just not as fast."

"Nuclear power? Solar?" Others shouted. The idea that the problem had already gotten beyond us was incomprehensible.


The speaker waited for the excitement to die down. "I appreciate your enthusiasm. We should explore all the options you mentioned. But we should also be clear about the future we're facing now. Those solutions may mitigate the disaster. They can't stop it. There is already too much carbon in the system as is. You could stop all emissions tomorrow and it won't change anything. The world is going to warm by at least five degrees Celsius by the end of the century. Likely more." He shook his head. "That will be enough to put Indonesia underwater. Most of coastal India. Large chunks of the US coastal population. The disaster migrations alone will throw the world into chaos. And that doesn't even get into the droughts and famines we'll experience. I doubt any of us will have money left over for iPods once the price of bread quintuples. Commodity inflation will probably put a stake in the heart of the global economy." He stopped, and rubbed his temple weakly before our stunned and angry faces. "And there's nothing we can do to change that now."

Penny took it the hardest. She buried her head into my shoulder on the car ride home, while I stared despondently out the window at the sun setting over the California coastline. Ali, though, he only looked thoughtful. And at the corners of his mouth I thought I could detect the beginnings of a slight smile.


I arrived as late as I dared, hoping to avoid seeing him before the presentation. It was the first sunny day we'd had in months. The stage was set up on the high ground, well away from the coast line. To my right, I saw what looked like a small cooling tower, the type usually associated with nuclear reactors.

I grabbed a seat near the front and opened my laptop. Next to me, I saw the senior technology reporter from Time pecking away at her phone with her thumbs. I waved.


"Devora. You hear what he's announcing?"

She shook her head. "Hasn't said a word to us. Nobody else, either. Never known Ali to sit on a project this long."


He appeared a few minutes later, taking a seat left of the podium in his usual dapper attire. A press flack took the stage, said a few laudatory comments about the company. Ali stood to polite applause, and shielded his eyes against the morning sun. He scanned the audience for a minute, then spotted me, and grinned. For a moment, I felt like we were both twenty years younger. He leaned toward the microphone.

"As you know, our civilization is in crisis. Once fertile farmland is now desert, and food prices are skyrocketing. Our cities are flooding. We are only now beginning to address the full scope of this problem. Last year, Vermillion introduced the Everbrite solar cell, with efficiency gains of over 30%. Our Atlas reactors are the safest and most cost-effective nuclear plants in the world. Vermillion technology has led the way in arresting the rise of greenhouse gas emissions. I'm proud to say that last year was the first in history in which greenhouse emissions actually declined year over year." There was some slight applause, mostly from Vermillion's marketing department.


"But the truth is, we waited far too long to make those changes. Global temperatures are now forecast to continue rising an additional seven degrees centigrade by the end of the century, on top of already staggering increases in the last twenty years. This will cause the end of Western civilization as we know it."

The crowd murmured in alarm. I leaned forward. It was the first time I'd heard anything other than pollyanna optimism about climate change from a CEO. Ali cleared his throat, and the crowd quieted again.


"Reducing our footprint is no longer sufficient. If we want to save ourselves from extinction, we're going to have to take more drastic measures." He threw his arm out toward the cooling tower.

"So we built the Phoenix reactor."

I felt a sudden strong gust of wind in my face. It was coming from the tower.

"Don't be alarmed," Ali said with a wink. "That's mostly just oxygen and some water vapor coming out. Several hundred metric tons a minute, granted, but quite safe."


Next to me, Devora raised her hand. "Where's it all coming from?"

Ali gave his piratical grin again, and leaned against the podium. He hiked his thumb toward the harbor. "From there. We're pumping seawater straight from the Atlantic into the Phoenix reactor, which is buried next to a geothermal vent a few thousand meters below us. It's about 1200 centigrade down there. That's hot enough to break the valence bond in CO2, by the way. Once we've stripped the carbon out of the sea water, we pump the recombined oxygen and H2O up to the cooling towers. We're sucking the carbon straight out of the biosphere."


I saw a hand go up to my left.

"How's taking CO2 out of the ocean going to do anything for the atmosphere?"

"The world's oceans and the atmosphere are in chemical equilibrium. As the ocean's CO2 levels drop, they'll absorb the excess in the atmosphere as equilibrium is reestablished. This happens rather quickly, in fact."


Reporters were fidgeting around me, tweeting every word as fast as they could. But the numbers didn't add up.

"Ali, you can't really be suggesting this is a viable solution," I called out. "New York City alone produces 60 million metric tons of CO2 a year."


"It's 65 million, actually," Ali said. "You're right. In order to have any sort of effect, we'd have to run this project on an enormous scale. The reactor would have to process two cubic kilometers of sea water every day of the year to offset even that much."

I felt the excitement around me dissipate. We'd all been reporting on the Catastrophe for years. We'd seen all sorts of schemes, toys, and geo-engineering projects rolled out in an unending succession. The world was flailing about for answers. We had been for decades as things had fallen apart around us. Ali's reactor was just one more desperate trick. There would be a hundred more such tricks, until one day everything would stop, and that would be the end for us.


But then Ali looked up, and smiled. And winked at me.

"Fortunately, this baby sucks down twice that much."

I blinked in astonishment as the press corps erupted. Reporters turned to each other, asking if Ali's claims could be even remotely possible. "You heard me right. The Phoenix reactor is completely offsetting all the CO2 produced by the city and then some. Now," he chuckled again. "We're going to need a few more of these if we're going to save the world. About a thousand, operating around the clock for the next decade. But we've already received interest from several national governments."


"If you're pulling that much CO2 out of the oceans, where's it all going?" Devora asked him. "Dioxide is lethal in large quantities. Aren't you worried about containment?"

Ali shrugged. "I would be. If we were sequestering CO2. We're not. We're breaking the valence bond. What's left is pure, non-toxic carbon."


"You still haven't explained how you're going to make money doing this."

"There's a variety of revenue streams. Carbon's one of our most important raw materials, as you know. Our nanotube division is growing exponentially. Nanotube suspension bridges, carbon-fiber bodies for automobiles…" he shrugged again as his voice trailed off and he avoided my eyes. I doubted anyone else in the press corps could tell he was hiding something.


I did a quick series of calculations on my laptop. "Ali, that's still not enough. You're extracting 17 million metric tons of pure carbon just from New York City every year. Over a thousand times that if you plan to run this operation on a global scale. I'm sure there's demand for nanotubes, but it can't be anywhere near that high. You're going to have tons of carbon you'll have to bury somewhere. There's no way you'll be able to run this at a profit."

Ali threw up his hands in exasperation. "You're right, Beedie. It's a heck of a lot more carbon than we know what to do with. And we do need an efficient way to store it. But we've found a way to compress the stuff into a relatively dense, inert state that we don't think will harm anything. Should help us make a small profit, too."


That's when I noticed a technician in a blue shirt and khaki pants walking toward the stage from the direction of the cooling tower. He carried a large, black box, grinning from ear to ear.

Ali put his hand over the microphone. "Excuse me." The technician whispered to Ali, then handed him the box. "Sorry for the interruption folks." Ali descended from the stage, and walked over to me. Eyeing me carefully for a moment, he turned to Devora. "Would you mind terribly helping me dispose of this stuff? You'd be doing me an awful favor."


Devora opened the box with both hands and peered inside. Frowning, she reached in and pulled out a large hunk of black rock, what looked like pure charcoal. She wrinkled her nose at the mess it made on her hands.

"Sorry about the mess. If you would just chip off a bit of the outer shell."

Devora worked the soft crust with her fingers, the charcoal falling off easily in inky black chunks onto the ground. A wide smile dawned on her face.


"And now," Ali said quietly. "If you wouldn't mind holding that up."

Devora raised the object, about the size of a basketball, high above her head, bits of charcoal raining down on her. Thunderous applause erupted, as the crowd looked at the largest diamond any of us had ever seen.


Berkeley 2006

I stared down at him while he rubbed his jaw.

"I doubt you've ever thrown a punch before, old man. I guess I should be grateful."


"Get up," I growled.

He did so slowly, with a placating hand out toward me. "Come in and shut the door. It's freezing out." I did as he asked, then wheeled around and planted another fist in his stomach. He doubled over and grunted, winced, but still managed to cock an eyebrow up toward me. "Are you finished?"


I followed him into the living room and jabbed my finger into his face. "You knew we were having problems. I told you because I trusted you."

Ali nodded. "Yeah. You did. I'm sorry. I didn't mean for this to happen. Neither of us did."


I snorted. "All those rallies, the committees, the protests. You didn't give a damn about any of it, did you? You were just tagging along to get close to Penny."

It might have been the only time I ever saw him look hurt. "You don't really believe that, do you?"


"You're taking the job at Vermillion, aren't you? You're going to work for the enemy?"

"In their advanced materials division, Beedie. I'm going to be working on solar panels, not drilling for oil. I don't have the luxury of playing politics with my potential employers. I've got almost $200,000 in student loans I have to start paying back next year." Ali put his hand to his nose, pinched it and leaned forward. Something made him chuckle.


Ali put up a hand. "You hate me, right now. Maybe you even hate Penny, too. But please, don't hate us forever. We're going to be in each other's lives for a long time."

I shook my head. "No. I'm done with both of you."

Ali sighed. "It doesn't work like that, old sport. We're bonded. Like carbon."

This time, he was late. But I was beyond caring by that point.


"You shouldn't," I heard his voice as he took a seat next to me at the bar, handing his long black trench coat and umbrella to the check girl. "Please don't."

"I'm already on my third." I drained my glass.

Ali sighed. "Why, Beedie? Why now?"

I shook my head. I wasn't the one I was worried about. "Where's your security, Ali? Don't tell me you came here alone."


Ali took a hesitant sip from a beer. "I never went in for those trappings."

"My articles," I slurred my words. "The cartel. The one that won the Pulitzer. Did you actually read it?


Ali cocked an eyebrow. "Where do you think I got the idea in the first place?" I blinked a few times. He smiled and put a hand on my shoulder. "We'd been studying the problem for years. We knew from the start we didn't want to just sequester CO2, the stuff's too dangerous. But what else could we do? There's the carbon nanotubes construction. That's a big piece. We'll be producing them a hundred times faster than our nearest competitor. Do you know what you can do with that? What becomes possible with that production rate?" He leaned across the bar, the familiar glint in his eye. "Space elevators. Enough carbon nanotube scaffolding to reach geo-stat orbit. We're already in discussions with the Chinese and the Indians.

"But even that wasn't enough of a market. There was no way I could sell this as a profitable enterprise to the board.


"Then I saw your article, Beedie. You were the inspiration. Diamonds: a form of carbon we could sell by the ton at a huge markup. Carbon so valuable people literally kill for it."

"The cartel. Ali, you're going to be producing millions of tons of uncut diamond every year. Adding that much supply will torpedo the market."


Ali winked, like he couldn't see the oncoming train. "Certainly. What a shame."

He took another swig from the bottle. I yanked it out of his hand and slammed it on the bar. "They kill people for so much less than this. Remember what they did to the Israelis? Or the Sierra Leone massacre? And they weren't anywhere near the threat you're going to be. Do you think they won't move heaven and earth to get rid of you?"


"It's done, Beedie. The technology's already been developed. Killing me won't do them any good."

I shook my head. I'd never been able to get through to him. "They won't care. You're threatening they're existence. They'll try anything, now. They'll go after Vermillion. They'll target the scientists working for you." He wasn't listening. "Call off the diamond production." Ali snorted and shot me a dubious look. "It's a sideshow. Any government in the world would back you." I grabbed him by the shoulders. Ali flinched and pulled back, but I had the wool of his jacket curled tightly in my fingers. I pulled him toward me. "Ali, you're risking your life. You could die."


His narrowed his eyes, and I saw the crow's feet again. His lips curled in something close to a smile.

"C'mon, Beedie," he said finally. "I died twelve years ago." He held my gaze for a moment, then lowered his eyes.


Ali had known how dangerous the cartel was. He did it anyway. Because he'd read my article. Because Penny had died and he'd read my article. Damn.

"I tried calling," he said quietly. "After the funeral, I tried calling."

"I know. I never answered."

"She never stopped. Caring about you. Neither did I."

I downed the last of my drink. "I know."

Ali stood. He put on his coat, and offered his hand. I took it gladly. "Bye, Beedie. It was nice seeing you again."


We both smiled. He looked tired and, for a moment, beaten. But then he turned back and winked, and the bright old Ali returned, and he whistled as he strode out the door.

The police discovered his car by the side of the road early the following week. It had been raining. His car had been speeding. They were investigating the possibility his driver had been drunk. Executives at Vermillion didn't comment on what Ali's death meant for the direction of the company, or his carbon capture initiative. They talked about how important his vision had been, how difficult it would be to replace him. I held out hopes they'd continue the project, but I had my doubts. Without the force of Ali's personality behind it, I suspected it would be shelved. But I'm a suspicious person by nature, and my doubts are often unjustified.


Sproiles wanted to assign it to another reporter, but I insisted on writing his obit myself.

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Brilliant piece, especially the way you tie together the main characters. And the consequences that come up from the process were an interesting approach, taking into account forces that I don't think anyone else has considered with regards to carbon sequestration.

Definitely a winner, on all levels!