Tuesday, November 22, 2011

PROLOGUE II: Charles Hammer’s Demonstration


Most weekdays, Chicago’s Michigan Avenue was heavily trafficked. But on August 7, 2051, it was closed for Dr. Charles Hammer’s big PR stunt. This required extraordinary co-operation from public officials, even in a town notorious for ‘anything at a price’. The fact that he pulled it off with such seeming ease spoke to Hammer’s reputation, perseverance, money, connections, and personal magnetism.

The cynical and jealous press credited only his money.

Dapper, philosophical, and a publicity magnet, Hammer was legendary for his speed with a soundbyte. Early in his career, when a critic dismissed him as ‘50% Thomas Edison and 50% P.T. Barnum’, Hammer quipped: “Edison was 50% Barnum too, so technically I’m 50% Edison and 100% Barnum.”

A materials scientist, Hammer was renowned for one of the 21st Century’s game-changing breakthroughs: A self-folding, permeable polymer web that led to the world’s first ‘true’ artificial intelligence, and eventually, MOM. He’d promised the media an even bigger story today.

Eight hundred folding chairs were set out on a carpeted area for invited media and guests. They faced a long bamboo stage a meter above street level, topped with a curved metallic structure whose main purpose was to awe and intimidate through the fame of its designer and the obvious expense of its manufacture. (Almost incidentally, it provided shade for performer and audience, along with acoustic enhancements.) An ultradef display ran the length of the stage, on which stood an antique marble lectern. Each end of the stage was closed off by an orange curtain. On the street, at either end and in front of the stage, were two 18-wheel trailer trucks set in opposite directions. A 600-meter spool of ribbon, made of the new ‘miracle material’ Hammer would introduce today, had one end attached to the back of each.

Two hundred meters from the presentation area was a portable two-story structure. It was concealed by a lattice, over which was stretched the same translucent orange fabric that graced the stage. An orange corridor from the stage to the structure had been constructed the same way.

The fabric was symbolic of ’The Hammer Way’. To his critics, the phrase meant an outward pretext of nonchalance, masking a dark hidden agenda.

While the fabric seemed a cosmetic trifle, it had serious purpose. Though thin enough for shadows to be seen behind it, it could not be fully penetrated even by quantum-light devices. It vibrated in a way that kept conversations from being overheard, scanned for spy-bots, and could stop a high-powered bullet. Even its color, ‘Hammer Orange’, had been carefully chosen for reasons beyond visual appeal. The rights to the color had been purchased from the estate of an environmental artist who had accumulated considerable public goodwill. Hammer believed he had acquired that goodwill when he bought the color.

The unassuming fabric worked hard in unseen and unexpected ways, ‘like a duck under the water’, as Hammer liked to say. And that was the way he expected his company to operate. ‘The Hammer Way’.

Inside the orange corridor and walking from the stage to the structure was Jane Murphy, Hammer’s Gal Friday. As usual her boss was holding up the presentation with some last-minute detail. She walked unhurried, checking other company business on her tablet, hoping that Hammer would emerge of his own accord.

A voice in her ear said, “He’s late.” This was their new stage manager, in charge of his first presentation since his promotion to replace his just-retired superior. Hammer frowned on breaking in new people during his presentations, and Murphy had gone out on a limb for him. Now she wondered if she might regret it.

“Of course he’s late. He’s always late, and they always wait. That’s how it goes. We’re fine.” Murphy wasn’t as sanguine as she’d tried to sound: Hammer was late even by his standards. But she already knew she’d have to prod her boss along, and could do without the kibitzing.

“Maybe not this time,” came the reply. “Check the ‘zone.”

The Chicago heat in August could be brutal, so to hold the event outdoors, the company had laid out a temperature-containment zone for the assembled guests. Murphy checked the ‘zone’s readings on her tablet and, sure enough, it was breaking down. She called up a view of the crowd, which was clearly getting restless. She quickened her pace.

“Why didn’t someone tell me?” she asked.

“I just did. It’s not my responsibility, you know. That’s crowd management. They haven’t done an outdoor event in, well, the five years I’ve been here, anyway. Probably no one knew whose job it was.”

“All right. Take charge of it. I’m heading towards him anyway. I’ll see what’s up.”

Hammer did not like being rushed or distracted before a ‘performance’, as he called these events. But it was Murphy’s singular task within the company to order, cajole, threaten or beg Charles Hammer to do things he did not want to do. She steeled herself for a confrontation.

Entering the building, she scanned the roomful of bustling employees. The walls, covered with promotions from past events, were practically a museum of Hammer history. As Murphy was spotted, activity slowed, voices stilled, eyes turned to her expectantly. “Well?” All present indicated a door, which she entered.

Inside, Hammer stood on a short platform, draped in an impeccable dark-blue suit and being furiously attended by two tailors.

Hammer acknowledged her. “Jane. Come to wish me luck?”

“That’s a $30,000 bespoke suit, delivered three weeks ago. You need to get it altered now?”

“The human body is a moving target. Its mass changes and shifts, every day. The left sleeve was binding, showing too much cuff. I can’t have that nagging at me.” Hammer calmly shrugged off the jacket so that the anxious tailors could get at its innards. “You know, Ted Williams insisted that his uniform and his bats be just so before he stepped in the box. He wouldn’t tolerate distractions. He was right. Hitting a baseball is a delicate and savage thing, all at once. Not unlike public speaking.”

“You’re late. I mean, later than usual. That crowd won’t sit still much longer.”

“Of course they will. They always do. What’s gotten into you?”

“The temperature-containment zone is breaking down. They’re getting seriously antsy.”

Hammer frowned. “That new guy.”

“No. It’s not his responsibility. And he’s been with us five years.”

“Well. They’ll be a little sweaty, but they’ll still wait. And you know why they will, don’t you?”

Murphy knew where this was headed, but it was not something she wanted to rehash right now. Still, she was trapped, since now he would not move til she responded. ‘Damn him.’ “We’re never going to find out what happened to our logo. Someone made a mistake. Let it go, please.” She knew that he would not.

The logo in question was on a satellite in orbit, and was supposed to have been revealed during that day’s demonstration. But because some cover plates had gone uninstalled, it had been spotted by a sharp-eyed astronomer a week before. The media, in rare possession of a fact about Hammer’s business that he could not control, threw themselves into an orgy of speculation. Behind closed doors, a furious Hammer had given his top people an impassioned dressing-down as wild rumors broke loose all around them.

“Our entire presentation is compromised. You do realize that, right?” Hammer said with conviction, but not anger. “No matter what I show them, no matter what I say, they’re all distracted. They’re focused on one thing, and one thing only: ‘What does Hammer have up there, circling the planet? Over our heads, right now?’ That’s why they’ll wait. They’ll wait as long as they have to, but for the wrong reasons.”

It was time, thought Murphy, to play the begging card. “Please tell me you’re not doing this to punish those reporters. Or me.”

The tailors helped Hammer back on with his coat. “You know better than that. I’d never have come this far being so petty.” Hammer made some movements with his arm, testing the new adjustments. “But I do need you to take to heart the cost of our lost opportunity here. You will find the culprit.”

Murphy wanted to say ‘Yes, sir’ and move things along, but her boss would know he was being patronized. So instead, she defended her position. Clearly he was not going to be prodded into moving any faster anyway. “Even NASA’s contractors have contractors. It’s like untangling a plate of spaghetti.”

“You know, I wrote an algorithm for a high school science fair that did exactly that. Use it if you have to,” he quipped, “but don’t slough it off.” He dismissed the tailors, who gathered their things and scurried away. “It may have been espionage. In our position, we can assume nothing. Understood?”

“Yes, sir.” This time, she meant it. She had not considered that it might have been deliberate. It seemed unlikely, but Hammer was right, they were in no position to not assume the worst.

“Good.” Hammer plucked a Hammer-orange flower from a nearby vase, a welcome sign that he was ready to make his appearance. He headed out the door, Murphy close behind. They passed through the anteroom, heedless of the milling workers straining to appear casual despite the rare chance for an up-close glimpse of the legend. Murphy signaled for a shuttle-bot to meet them at the outer door, and its timing was immaculate.

Aboard the open shuttle, their destination visible at the end of the orange corridor, Murphy risked egging her boss on. “How can you stand to begin these things so late, when you’re so damn fastidious about everything else?”

Hammer, warming to the task ahead, smiled playfully. “You’ve never understood the true relationship between ‘us’ and the world.”

“Enlighten me.”

“We’re not a company. We’re not a collection of engineers and researchers and whoever else is on the payroll these days. We’re not a corporate entity, we’re not a brand, we’re not an investment. We haven’t been any of that for a long, long time.”

“What are we, then? I’m sure the shareholders will be interested.”

“We are a royal priesthood. I’m surprised that’s not obvious. At times like this we come down from the mountain to dispense unto the masses the word from on high. From the holy place where only we dare set our feet. Like Moses and the tablets.”

Murphy could not resist making a pitch for future punctuality. “Moses kept them waiting too long. By the time he came down the mountain, his people were on to other things. So they ignored him, and he smashed the tablets.”

“Wrong. Moses couldn’t hold their interest because he wasn’t giving his people what they wanted. We do, and we have the bank balance to prove it.”

“So what do the people want, Mister High Priest?”

They had reached the edge of the stage, and Hammer disembarked. “People expect three things of their gods. Three things we of the priesthood must deliver. They expect salvation, they expect the hope of immortality…” Hammer stepped onto the lift that would carry him the last few meters to stage level.

“And?” Murphy asked, her gaze rising as the lift took him away.

He flashed the million-megawatt smile that had made him the world’s most revered tech entrepreneur. “And they expect to be kept waiting!”

Murphy looked at her feet and hugged her tablet as he disappeared from view. It would not do, after all her attempts to chastise him, to let him glimpse the smile she could not suppress. ‘Damn him!’

• • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • •

Hammer crossed the stage to the usual thunderous applause. He basked in the crowd’s adulation, accepting the passion they freely offered in exchange for his unique vision. This was their bond, their unspoken agreement with one another. Raising a hand in acknowledgement, he smiled beatifically at the assembled faithful.

“Thank you. Thank you for being here, thank you for coming.” He gestured at a large question mark that appeared on the display behind him, and launched into his spiel. “I know you’re wondering something. It’s been in the news, everyone’s talking about it. It’s the question on everyone’s lips: ‘What did Hammer put into orbit?’ Well, wait no longer… here it is!” A picture of Star Wars’ Death Star appeared, and the crowd roared in delight.

“OK, we do have a satellite in orbit. It’s not that. It’s – believe me, please – it’s not anything like that. But what’s important, at this moment, is the reason we put something in orbit. And the reason… is this.”

Hammer held a sample of his ribbon up for his audience to see. A showman to his core, he’d deliberately made it as ephemeral-looking as possible, to strike a dramatic contrast with the burly semis waiting nearby. It looked like nothing more substantial than a wisp of blackish toilet paper. He raised the ribbon higher to flutter in Chicago’s famous wind, declaring it “thinner than a politician’s promise, but much harder to break.”

“So, what is it?” Hammer asked rhetorically, going on to explain the nature of the stuff. The screen behind him showed an animated diagram of a continuous-fiber carbon nanotube, which for decades had been the holy grail of materials scientists. He told the crowd its extreme light weight and strength would enable a number of important product innovations, and promised to elaborate after the demonstration. “We’ve attached a length of this material to the end of both the trucks you see here. Watch this.”

The trucks roared to life and sped off. A counter rapidly ticked off the length of ribbon that remained. Just before it hit ‘zero’, the stunt drivers bailed. The spools ran out and the ribbon snapped tight, sounding a deep, dynamic ‘thunk’ that rebounded smartly off the nearby buildings. Both trucks lifted off the ground and twisted majestically in the air, screeching and groaning as their kinetic energies sought avenues of release. Finally spent, they fell heavily to earth, but Hammer’s material did not yield.

When the applause and chatter subsided, Hammer offered illustrations of potential uses for the product, such as reinforced concrete, faster planes, and crash-resistant automobiles. Referencing the latter he said, “The trucks you just saw were reinforced with a web made of our product.” The underside of a truck appeared onscreen, and a zoom-in revealed what looked like a bird’s nest made of swizzle sticks. “Had we not done this, at least one of the trucks would have had its back end torn off. You’d be thinking our vehicle was faulty, and we’d be off chasing the remnants down the street.

“Don’t ask me how we know that, by the way. I’d only have to lie to protect the guilty.” The audience tittered appreciatively.

“We call our product Carmot.” A logo appeared onscreen. “‘Car’ for the element ‘carbon’. Our product is pure carbon, just like the charcoal in your grill or a diamond ring. ‘Mot’ is French for ‘word’, and a word is a group of letters given meaning by placing them in a specific order. ‘Carmot’ is carbon given strength by the order of its structure.

“Over the next two weeks, a dozen licensees will announce their own products based on this material. These will bear a ‘contains Carmot’ label. As we find ways to lower costs through production scale and other efficiencies, we expect that many more products will come to market. We’ve been seeing a great deal of interest in Carmot. In fact, it’s been a bit overwhelming.

“But there is one use for Carmot we’re developing ourselves, and that’s what we’ll discuss for the remainder of our time today.”

Video clips of flying cars from Star Wars and The Jetsons came onscreen.

 “There are two great technological lies of the past hundred years. The first is that, one day, you would drive to work in your flying car. The second is that we entered the space age back in the 1960s.” Famous pop-culture spacecraft, from 2001 to Star Trek, flashed across the vidscreen.

“Don’t get me wrong, we have made some use of space. We have satellites feeding us communications. That’s fine, but calling that a ‘space age’ is like calling a trip to the local deli a restaurant tour. Our ‘space age’ has had about as much to do with space as the Radio Flyer did with radio.

“Why is that? Well, like the flying car, our model for getting into space and back again just isn’t practical. We can get into space all right, but it doesn’t scale to a profitable space-based industry. If our basic transportation model was as flawed as our space model, none of you would even have cars.

“We have a crying need to change this. We’re running out of metal, water, and minerals. Our planet is tapped-out. We know at least some of the resources we need are out there for the taking. But we don’t have a means to get them that doesn’t cost more in resources than we could recover. That’s the truth. We can kid ourselves about that – actually, we do kid ourselves, and have for a long time – but there’s no getting around it.

“Our plans for extending human enterprise into space have never been plans at all. They’ve been government-funded stunts, sci-fi entertainments, wealthy dilettantes’ hobbies, and wishful thinking. We’ve been fantasizing, for decades, about building an ocean with a thimble. That’s why, a half-century after 2001, we still have no ‘Space Odyssey’.”

Hammer paused while quotes like these appeared onscreen:

‘It's a very sobering feeling to be up in space and realize that one's safety factor was determined by the lowest bidder on a government contract.’
- Alan Shepard, astronaut
‘I always considered every launch a barely controlled explosion.’
- Aaron Cohen, NASA administrator

Hammer gestured at the screen and resumed: “If you were an investor, would you want your money in a business where valuable goods and personnel were routinely placed atop a ‘barely controlled explosion’ each day? Or would you prefer a business where key resources took a safe, predictable elevator ride? For the serious investor, the business of space has never added up. Space spending has always been justified by invoking adventure, vanity, national glory, Star Wars fantasies, and scientific research, but never by profit. In our secret hearts we’ve always known this.

“Now, as I hope you’ve guessed, we are here today to do something besides complain. Some of you may know that in 1895, Konstantin Tsiolkovsky first conceived the idea for a space elevator.” Concept art, some of it antique, appeared onscreen. “It’s a simple idea: A large satellite orbits a planet, while attached to the planet with a cable. The space elevator rides up and down that cable, which reaches high enough to escape most of Earth’s gravity well.

“Until now, no suitable material existed for the cable. It’s a long way up into space, so anything strong enough for the task would break under its own weight. That’s been the big hold-up, pardon the pun, until now. Carmot is the breakthrough that will enable the space elevator and, at last, a true space age.

“One perk of amassing a personal fortune like mine is not having to wait for anything. So we’re not waiting for someone with an interest in space to approach us. We as a species cannot afford to wait a moment longer.”

A map appeared onscreen as Hammer continued. “We’ve built the base foundation for the world’s first true space elevator in this area not far from O’Hare. Here it is, in this aerial photo. NASA, who we’re trying to put out of business, has graciously lashed together some decom’d satellites for our counterbalance, and nudged them into a geosync orbit about 38,000 km over the base. A Carmot cable has been manufactured in an automated orbiting factory we’ve built. That’s the mystery satellite up there, our little factory. One end of the test cable it produced has been attached to NASA’s satellites. Over the next few weeks the other will be lowered to the O’Hare base.

“We’ve obtained permits to operate a small, experimental version of the elevator. Once this proves out, we will build a full-size version. Eventually we will construct a number of these on Earth, and subsequently on the Moon and Mars.

“Now. I don’t usually turn these events into political or philosophical forums, but I’ll risk doing so today because this initiative is special.

“As important as enabling a true space-based industry is, it’s not the only reason for what we’re doing. It may not even turn out to be the most important one. Exploration, on any meaningful scale, has always been linked to the expansion of commerce and profit. With exploration comes frontier, and as frontier expands so does personal liberty. In fact, I dare say that only the expansion of frontier or the collapse of institutions has ever expanded liberty.

“Thomas Jefferson wrote that times come when governments become oppressive and must be altered or abolished. But Jefferson never did alter or abolish the government oppressing him. He and his fellow colonists were in no position to reform the British Empire. They were outmanned, outgunned, and outmonied. But they did manage to get beyond the king’s reach and begin again. And we – all of us, the whole human race – are immeasurably better off for that legacy.

“It’s clear to me that we live in a world where the hand of government reaches deeply into nearly every human endeavor. The U.S. is moving steadily toward a one-party system, which in turn is controlled by enormous multinationals and a handful of individuals far more powerful than any king who ever wore a crown. And the rest of the world is in worse shape than we are. For the average man, there’s little frontier left anywhere.

“Let me step back from this rhetoric a moment, before I panic our stockholders. Hammer Industries changes the world every day because… its fun! That’s why I get up in the morning. But we keep having fun only because doing so has been quite profitable through the years. Everything we do, we do in the spirit and best interest of commerce. We’ll continue, as we always have, in the headlong pursuit of profit. OK? So let’s have no worries, or headlines, on that score.

“But our pursuit, at such a turn as this, will not and cannot end with profit. We are embarking on something that will take us beyond that, to a far more important place.

“It is human nature for institutions to grow corrupt and overbearing, for ideals and dreams to grow weary and stale. But it is also human nature to find new frontiers and refresh the collective soul. The day one oppressed man is freed is the day from which we measure change.

“I don’t know how long the journey we begin today will take. But what matters is that, after so much self-deception, after so many false starts and broken promises and dashed dreams, the day of change has finally arrived. We will measure the change in our destinies from this day onward.

“Let me ask you: What is the dream of space? I say it is nothing less than the dream of finding out who we truly are. And now that dream is made manifest. I hold it here before you, in my hands.

“This,” he said, his slightly-trembling hand holding the fluttering Carmot sample aloft one last time, “paves a new road to prosperity, freedom and renewal. This holds the promise for the future of humanity. And like every great breakthrough, this has come to us precisely when we need it most.”

Hammer’s audience stood and, for the next ten minutes, cheered and whistled and applauded. In hotels facing the street, where more media, investors, well-wishers and hangers-on watched from windows and on giant ultradef displays, hundreds more followed suit. And around the world, where the event had been broadcast live, billions felt a warm, unfamiliar swelling of hope.

- from The Patriots of Mars

No comments:

Post a Comment