Geo Sink

“Geo Sink”

 by John Taloni

Alice looked at her ringing phone. A number she hadn’t seen in years flashed on it. She’d stopped programming the name in three phones ago.

“Johnny,” she said, accepting the call after a moment’s hesitation. “It’s been … I can’t remember how long.”

“Alice!” came the enthusiastic reply. “I’ve lost track.”

“I’m in the middle of a quarterly close,” she said. “The SEC won’t wait for a financial statement. What’s up? Make it fast.”

“My firm is looking at an early-stage investment in a space company. You were always the space buff in grad school. I thought I might pick your brain.”

“Still doing venture capital, I see,” she responded.

“Yep. Plenty of scientists to advise me but they all have their own agenda. You’re the only impartial person on my contact list that knows anything about the subject,” he replied.

Alice looked at her computer’s clock. 8 PM. The longer she talked now, the longer it would be before she could get home. Still, her interest was piqued. “So what can you tell me about it?”

“Not much over the phone,” he said. “Let me buy you lunch and tell you all about it. I’ll bring a nondisclosure agreement.”

“For the next two weeks, lunch will be a sandwich at my desk while working on our filing,” she replied. “I can meet you after that.”

“Mmmm … that’ll be too late. There is a bit of time pressure. Can you do coffee?”

Alice looked at her calendar. “Okay. 11:30. Thursday.”

John Roberson arrived at the coffee shop well before the appointed time. He staked out a table in a corner. As Alice walked in, he waved her over. “Alice Kim! Good to see you again.”

“Thanks,” she responded, “but it’s been Alice Tanaka for some time now.”

“You finally took your husband’s name?”

“It’s easier. The kids are in high school now,” she responded. Alice looked over the table. “Four coffees? Are you expecting someone else?”

“No, just wanted to make it worth the coffee shop’s while to have me monopolize the table,” he responded. “This one’s yours. Latte with a shot of espresso.”

She took a sip. “Can’t believe you remembered.”

“It was a good two years,” he said.

“We dated three years,” she said with a wry smile. They shared a short laugh over their grad school relationship. The MBA program had been a cauldron of late nights and impossible deadlines, but it had been a shared one. Then after graduation, both went to different venture capital firms.

“Do you miss it?” he asked.

“Venture capital? Sometimes. But I wanted a life. I’m busy now, but when this filing is done I get to spend time with the family.” She paused for a moment. “Tell me you aren’t here to recruit me.”

“No, not as such, although if you were interested …?”

“Just tell me why we’re here,” she said with a touch of impatience.

John pulled out a piece of paper. “Standard NDA,” he said. She scanned it, nodded, and signed. She pointed at her watch and he went on. “One of our biotech firms was working on a drug delivery method using nanobots. One experimental batch spontaneously assembled itself into a strand. Seems to be really strong.”

“How strong?” asked Alice.

“Really strong. Substantially stronger than any carbon nanofiber anyone has found to date,” said John.

Alice’s coffee sloshed as her hand jerked. “You’re thinking about using this to…make a space elevator?”

“That’s the idea, but we’re not completely sure it’s strong enough for that,” he said. “This could get really expensive to try. We’re looking at multiple rounds of funding.”

“I’ll say,” Alice responded. “It would be a whole new industry. As if you were inventing the Internet all over again. Or mobile phones.”

He nodded. “With patents that give us a virtual monopoly on cheap access to space. But we need to keep costs down. We’re thinking a short strand. I’ve heard about geosynchronous satellites that get close to Earth.”

“You’re tripping over terminology,” she replied. “Geosynchronous only means that it returns to the same spot over Earth. You need geostationary. That’s 25 thousand miles out. And pretty much only over the equator. Geosynchronous can be anywhere, but they don’t stay over the same spot of ground all the time.”

“Mmm.” He took a long pull of coffee. “So are you saying it can’t be done? Bad investment?”

“No,” she responded. “It means you’ll need to make that carbon strand really cheaply. Produce it in orbit if you can. You’d need an automated factory, probably in low Earth orbit, and ion drive rockets for cheap transfer of materials to the station in higher orbit.”

John gave her a knowing look. “Are you sure you don’t want back in? Some people are still talking about that telecomm satellite deal you did, before you left the industry. You left a good reputation behind.”

“I had my fill of the Venture Capital lifestyle back in the day,” she replied.

“Of course,” he responded. “One more thing. You heard about that asteroid that’s coming close to Earth?”

“Sure. Not too close, though. Hundred thousand miles as I recall.”

“About a hundred and twenty,” he replied. “And it’s fairly small. We’re looking into capturing it and using it for the other side of our space elevator. We’ll need to start soon.”

“You might have more time than you think,” she replied. “Take some ion engines up by chemical rocket. Drop them on the asteroid and let them fire continuously. Influence the orbit over time. Bring it back around that way.”

Alice checked her watch. “I have to head back to the office.” She pulled her car keys out of her purse. “It’s interesting. If you can, invite me to the pitch meeting on an informal basis. I’ll be your Yabbutman.”

“My what?” he replied.

“Yabbutman. When someone makes an assertion, I’ll say “Yah, but …”

Four weeks later. Alice showed up at the offices of Patel, Moore and Associates. John met her at reception. “Thought your name would be on the door,” she said.

“Senior partners only,” he responded. “Come on in.” He led her to a large conference room. “It’s us and two other VC firms. We’re looking to partner.”

“You don’t want to own it all yourself?” she asked.

“Too much risk. We could bankrupt ourselves trying. The … senior partners are risk averse.”

“Venture’s all about risk,” Alice responded, a puzzled look on her face. John raised his eyebrows and shrugged in response.

The room quickly filled as the other groups arrived. Several teams made presentations. One team proposed floating platforms in international waters as a base. Another wanted a mile-high concrete tower as a base for the filament that would attach from the sky. Two teams proposed competing visions for the process of managing the filament’s descent through the atmosphere.

When the presentations concluded a small group remained in the conference room – partners only. Each of the three firms there ran some swift financial calculations. Alice saw several heads nodding “no” and pursed lips. She packed away her folio and was about to leave when Ramesh Patel stood. “What does our guest think about the presentation?” he asked.

Alice shook her head. “It’s all too expensive. I don’t need to run the numbers to know that. You’re sticking with proven technology and one variation—the strand. Well, that technology costs money. Usually you need a government for something like this because of the huge sums involved. If you’re going to fund it privately, you have to take more risk.”

John gave her a look that meant for her to go on. “Could you describe that risk?”

“Sure,” she replied. “You don’t need an expensive base on the ground. You can build an inflatable one. Thoth Technology has the patent on a helium-filled tower that can go twelve miles high. With a little innovation it might reach 20 miles. Use that as your base and bring the strand there, dangled instead of rooted. Also, you’re going to need to lift materials into orbit from Earth at least at the start and possibly all the way through. Partner with the Skylon group building the solar power satellite installation for Britain. Their ships are air breathing to twenty-five kilometers so they need less fuel and the launches cost less. They’re also still experimental so they could use a partner. You could lose some freight to accidents, but should make it up in volume. And anyway, launch failures are always a problem no matter which method you use.” She looked at Patel and then Moore. “That would spread the risk around as well.” Out of the corner of her eye she saw the edges of John’s mouth turn up just a bit and knew he was trying not to smile.

“The tower will need to be built on land at the equator,” Alice continued. “Nothing against the floating platforms as a concept, but it would be too expensive to build. Not to mention it would be subject to UN regulations since it would be in international waters. Pick a country that is hungry for investment dollars and has a reasonably stable government. Brazil would be my first choice. Ecuador is good too.”

“Mmmm. Interesting. We’ll consider it,” said Patel. The meeting broke up after that and people milled about for a few minutes. Several gave Alice their cards, and one wrote something on the back.

When they had all left, John walked over to Alice. “Nice job,” he said. She made a sour face. “Something wrong? Looked like you had Frank Evans eating out of your hand.”

Alice pulled out a business card and showed John the front, then flipped it over to the back. “That’s his private cell phone number,” said John. “I didn’t get that until I made partner here. Took a lot of work.”

“But that’s the problem,” said Alice. “He said he’d like to discuss my ideas—over dinner and drinks. It was a come-on. He doesn’t even remember he’s done it to me before.” Alice grimaced, then stared John right in the eyes. “It’s just like the bad old times. Didn’t you ever figure out why I left venture capital?”

John gave Alice a distant look. “I … assumed it was for the reasons you stated. Too many hours. No time for a personal life.”

“Those were reasons, yes. But what pushed me out was the rampant sexism, the old boys club. Before I quit several partners made advances at me. Didn’t you know?”

“No, I …” He trailed off. “Frank Evans has done several deals with us. Some of the medical advances we’ve made have saved thousands of lives. Potentially millions.”

“And he’s also made himself rich doing it. Look, I don’t know what his motivations are. Maybe he likes the idea of helping people in the abstract but treats those around him as objects. Maybe it’s just a way to make money. Maybe he’s blind to his own actions. But I do know I won’t let him touch me again.”

“Again …” John muttered. “I … I really didn’t know.”

“You’re an idealist,” Alice said. “But you are really naïve about people sometimes.” She glanced at the clock on the wall. “I’ve got to go. Good luck with the space elevator. Call if you want to bounce an idea off me.” She gave him a quick, one-armed hug and hurriedly left.

Ten days later, Alice’s phone rang. “John,” she answered.

“Alice!” he responded, a blustery cheer in his voice. “I’ve got good news and … well, I’ve got news.”

“Tell me you’re actually going to build the thing,” she said.

“Well, we might. It’s a distinct possibility. The combined group has given me the task of hiring our Operations manager. Basically the Chief Operating Office of the venture. One of our partners will be CEO, but in name only. Probably Ramesh.”

“That’s great! You know plenty of people in the VC industry. With your contacts you should get it done in no time.”

“We’re kind of hoping that the search is already complete,” he said. “Alice, our partners have a first choice. Our firm concurs as well. We want to hire you.”

Alice coughed spasmodically, then was silent for a long while. “John, I said I didn’t want back in. And my kids …”

“One of your kids is about to go to college and the others are in high school. The job would require you on site in Brazil three weeks out of the month but we would arrange a week home out of every four.” John took a deep breath. “We’ll also double your existing salary and provide early-stage stock options. If this is even a modest hit, they’ll be worth millions.”

“It’s a lot to consider, John,” she said.

“Sure, and you should discuss it with your family as well,” he replied.

“I’ll … I’ll think about it,” said Alice.

“Okay. We’ll want to know within a week, though, or we’ll turn to second choices,” he responded. “I’ll send over our offer.”

As she hung up the phone, Alice knew she didn’t need to consider the offer. She had a chance to build a space elevator. She knew she would have to do it.

Being willing to take the offer wasn’t the same as agreeing to the terms. No venture firm would respect an operating officer who didn’t negotiate. A few days later, Alice called John back. “I’d like to go over this offer letter,” she said after the opening pleasantries.

“Sure,” he replied. Alice smiled because both knew what was coming: a negotiation for the real offer. Alice could sense the suppressed grin on his face as they prepared for the dance.

“Seems to me that if this job is running a venture with a capital investment as large as this one, it’s worth a lot more than twice my current salary. I’m willing to take five times.”

“Hm, I’m not sure about that Alice. We might be able to do four,” he replied.

“I’ll take that … so long as you triple the offer for stock options. Vested within three months. With voting rights.”

“That’s a sticker,” he responded. “Stock goes mainly to investors. Stock options are a spiff.”

“Do some numbers on the increase to the expected value of success with my involvement and convince them,” she replied.

“Okay, we can talk about that,” he said.

“All right. Now, about the travel arrangements. I’m not flying economy. Business class at least.”

Two hours later they had a deal.

Like many difficult ventures, things went well at first. They found a large flat area in Brazil, right on the equator. The government happily approved their venture in order to get the investment dollars. Within a few months, the local subsidiary constructed the base. During the same period, Thoth agreed to a joint venture for the inflatable pylons. The first batch arrived as the base platform neared completion.

The asteroid they had in mind whizzed by, untouched. After reflection, the investment group didn’t want the public relations nightmare associated with the chance of an asteroid impact. However, Skylon agreed to carry their freight at a price substantially less than traditional rocket launches. The savings helped Skylon keep its own costs down in assembling a solar power satellite test.

Guy lines attached to every section of the base platform as the first inflatable segments went up. The helium-filled tower stretched into the sky.

The first tests of the strand looked good as well. Skylon sent up a package consisting of two lumps of metal connected by a piece of nanocarbon strand. An ion engine attached to the smaller lump fired continuously for five hundred hours, dragging the larger piece steadily behind it.

The second round of investment went off without a hitch. Alice flew back from Brazil at the last minute after negotiating a deal with a local utility to provide electrical power at a bulk rate. She then gave a speech outlining the progress and future plans.

The project was almost a year old when trouble began. Much of the second round of funding went toward building a space station for further tests of the strand. As part of routine follow up they took another look at the initial test objects.

Alice received a call on a nondescript Tuesday. The rest of the week appeared to be busy, but with nothing beyond normal administrative work. That changed quickly.

“Expanding? What do you mean?” Alice said into the headset.

“After exposure to vacuum for six months, the strand seems to be … stretching,” said the voice on the other end. It belonged to Jim Matsumura, the head of the research group developing the Strand.

“What does this mean for the project?” asked Alice.

“For this phase, not so much,” said Jim. “The strand is strong for tens of miles, perhaps hundreds.”

“And beyond that?” she inquired.

“It’s … unstable,” he responded. “Possibly it would hold for the 25 thousand miles needed. Possibly not.”

Alice called a hurried meeting at the research offices. The heads of the venture joined as well. The meeting went on for several hours. By the end they were sure that they had a serious problem.

With construction of the tower well under way, Alice left that portion of the venture in the hands of her second in command and returned full time to the United States. The most she could do was damage control, though. Repeated tests of variants showed no improvement.

When the time came for the third round of funding, investors were scarce. The company raised less than half of the goal. Word had gotten out that there was trouble.

Then the other shoe dropped, although by then it was expected. “The cram-down round is coming,” John told her. “I’m sorry. Not sure what the outcome will be.”

A week later the meeting for the final investment round was held. New investors would ride roughshod over the existing ones, diluting their stake—the “cram-down” for which this investment strategy was named.

During a break after the first set of discussions, Alice sought out John in the hallway. “Which option do you think is leading?” she asked.

“I don’t see much in the way of takers there,” he replied. “It’s not just the research setback. The Brazilians are getting skittish. There’s a small but vocal faction against the venture. So there could be no investors. Just a regular bankruptcy.”

“And if I vote my shares a different way, what will happen?” asked Alice. “Think anyone there will follow me?”

“You can’t save the venture,” replied John. “Possibly you could swing the vote one way or the other. Maybe an asset purchase shutting down the company.” He looked at his tablet and tapped a few times. “Investors would get ten cents on the dollar.”

“Nah,” she responded. “We should keep the company alive. The investors should get their money back.”

John gave her a puzzled look. They both knew that the point of venture capital was to hit a home run. Investors routinely either won big or lost their money. It was the lure of the big win that kept them in the game. None of them worked to break even. For every ten ventures, seven failed outright, one was a big hit and two a modest hit.

“Well, if you’re willing to stay on, they might do it,” John finally responded. “You know the operations best of all.”

“Sure, why not,” said Alice in a studied indifference. She fought to keep her thoughts from her face. “Let’s make a sky-high theme park. We’ve got the tower half built as it is. We’ll deflate it and move it somewhere else.”

Russia was glad to give them a location for their tower, with the investment funds and expected revenue from tower operations. Alice oversaw the deconstruction of the Brazil complex while construction of a base platform began in the new location.

Months later, Skydiving Ventures began operations. For a relatively modest fee, a person could ride up to the top and view the curve of the Earth from the viewing platform. Tour groups came in a trickle at first, then turned into a steady income stream.

For a substantially higher amount, a person could jump from the top wearing a spacesuit and a specially designed parachute. Formally called the Space Jump, and informally dubbed the “Baumgartner Bop” after the first person to jump from a craft twenty-four miles up, this feature became what the tower was best known for. Participants had to submit a physical to even be considered, then spend several days training in jump techniques before being allowed the attempt. Even then a technician monitored from the ground, and would manually trigger one of two failsafe parachutes if the jumper didn’t react as expected.

Alice looked into allowing vessels to land on the tower, but in the move to reduce costs, too many features had been sacrificed. The top was big enough for several buildings and an observation deck, but not a landing strip. Still, with the discretion allowed her as chief operating officer, Alice insisted on a small landing pad, complete with several small pods for emergency evacuations.

So it went for almost two years. The company divested the space station and gave up the research operation. The tower turned into a small cash cow, and nothing else. Or so it seemed.

Alice woke early that morning. She had a swig of water, but no breakfast. She had eaten very little the day before as well. She dressed in light clothes and went up the tower with the first group of tourists.

Once at the top she went into the small business office maintained there. A few minutes earlier than she expected, a call came in.

“Alice, there’s something odd in the sky near the tower,” John said.

“Yes, I can see them,” Alice replied. “It’s a series of balloons. Same kind as are used for weather balloons.”

“What are they doing there? Maybe the Russian Air Force can tell you what’s going on?”

“They are not a danger to the tourists, or the tower,” replied Alice.

“Are you sure? They seem to be dragging something. I can’t quite make it out from the video feed.”

“I know why they are there. I gave them permission,” she responded.

“It’s just that we’re all a bit worried,” he went on. “That old space station of ours has gone silent for months. It’s now trailing some kind of tendril with a weight on the end. They’re on an elliptical orbit that comes fairly close to you. We don’t want something to happen.”

Alice looked at John’s photo on her cell without saying anything for a few moments. Finally she spoke. “John, I have to go. I’ll speak to you soon.”

She left the office and put on a parachutist’s outfit. A brisk walk brought her to the landing platform in less than a minute. There, she saw a balloon approach the tower. It inched closer, powered by several fans. Finally it dropped a tethered package to the landing pad.

Alice took the item to the smallest escape pod. Once there she slid the package into an attachment on the top of the pod, then secured it. Finally she got into the pod and locked the door, then strapped into her motion harness. She flipped open a panel and pressed a button.

“Ready here,” she announced.

The top balloon lifted to its designated location. Dozens of balloons carried between them a specially designed strand of nanofiber.

The orbit of the station above moved it inexorably closer. Its elliptical orbit brought it closer and closer to the ground, almost skimming the atmosphere. The station’s own miles-long strand trailed beneath it, pulled by the weight on the bottom, itself moved by small rocket engines.

Alice could only sit and wait now. Trust the software. Trust the line, she thought.

The weighted station line now sped quickly towards the top balloon, faster than the eye could follow. Navigation computers calculated vectors more quickly than a human could type, and…

The weight slid through a vast hoop of nanofiber rope. The hoop closed, connecting the two strands. Alice lifted off the platform at an acceleration equal to ten gravities.

The balloons fell away as the combined strand lifted. It stretched, as it had been designed to do, but did not function exactly as designed. The g-forces went beyond tolerance. In the capsule, Alice passed out.

She awoke an indeterminate amount of time later. A look at the clock showed it had been only minutes. She turned her eyes to the outside and saw stars. They did not twinkle. Through the porthole she could see the strand.

She was in space.

Alice hovered in the microgravity of the station. Nearby the doctor finished her examination. “That liftoff was no pleasure cruise, but you should be okay,” she said in a thick Russian accent.

“Good. I want some coffee and some food.”

The doctor looked at her. “The station commander wants me to tell you that you have several requests for communication from the ground.”

“They can wait. Refreshment first. Those calls could go on for a while,” she responded. The doctor nodded her head and floated out. Moments later she came back with several tubes.

Alice ate, then pulled her hair back into a tidy bun so that it would no longer float in the microgravity. She drifted through the station to its command center. After pleasantries, she asked to be connected to the ground.

“You have communication requests from NASA, the European Space Agency, China’s space command and a multitude of news outlets,” the station commander told her. “And a request from John Roberson.”

“Him first,” she said.

The station commander raised an eyebrow but gave the order. The communications officer tapped a keyboard. A few moments later John’s face came on. The screen was interspersed with static but the image held.

“Alice! You’re all right! I was worried,” John exclaimed. He then paused and added, “The investors are all wondering what is going on also. I’m glad to see the station was able to pick you up. We can’t seem to find out anything about it. The station was bought by a consortium a while back, but that’s about all we know.”

“It’s mine,” Alice replied. “When the original venture fell apart I put together another group of investors. We own the station.”

“That’s … that’s ….” John was at a loss for words.

“We also picked up the patent on the nanofiber, Johnny. It went for pennies on the dollar. Although we had to keep it a secret. The scientists were glad to come to work for me. I signed them all to strong non-disclosure agreements. And I gave them an incentive. Each has a significant stock position. We stopped treating the stretch as a flaw and looked for ways to increase flexibility. In the end that was the difference. The strand stretched just enough as it lifted that the acceleration was survivable.”

She gave him a piercing look over the viewscreen. “The scientists will make more in one project than they could have in ten years working for Evans. Everyone on the team is going to be rich now.” She waved around the control room. “I don’t own it all myself, but I represent the shareholders and have a pretty good equity stake.”

A smile began to creep onto John’s face. “Alice, that’s … that’s underhanded, sneaky, and … really, really brilliant!” His face then sobered a little. “Our side is likely to be livid. They may tie this up on litigation for years.”

“Here’s why they won’t, Johnny,” she replied. “With the deal as it stands, they are going to make far more than they otherwise could. This was a proof of concept, and now everyone knows that it will work. The space frontier is open and they’re in at the start. They’re early stage investors and their stock price will go way up. Or they can sue. I’ll stay in Russia, which really won’t be all that responsive to their demands. I’ll build the next tower, higher and better, without them. We’ll have a real landing pad and ships to chase the satellite so the connection isn’t so hard. They can be a part of that. Or they can have a now outdated theme park.”

John nodded. “I’ll bring that to them.”

“Do it soon,” replied Alice. “I’m heading to higher orbit now. This satellite will return to the same spot tomorrow. I’m not coming down on the pod, though. A Skylon ship will take me down. Then I’m doing the talk-show circuit. I’ll either announce the deal with the original investors, or a new one.”

John nodded and made to break the circuit. Alice waved her hand to stop him. “I have one additional condition. You’ve been a better CEO than the one we’ve got. You’re in charge of the tower and the ground part of the venture. I’ll lead the overall one.”

“Yes Ma’am!” he said, a wide smile on his face.

“And when this thing goes IPO, we’re opening our own venture firm. We’re going to open up space. I might even make you senior partner.”

_______________

 John Taloni has been reading SFF since the age of eight when he stumbled across a copy of Alexei Panshin’s “Rite of Passage.” His major influences include Anne McCaffrey and Larry Niven, with a healthy side of Spider Robinson. He is a long-time attendee at SF conventions, and he met his wife while dressed as a Pernese dragon rider. Their daughter asked at the age of four if they could watch more of the show with “the robots that say ‘exterminate,'” and the entire family has happily watched Doctor Who together ever since. Taloni is an associate member of the Science Fiction Writers of America (SFWA.) He has an MBA from UCLA and loves what venture capital can do, although not always the way it’s done.

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1 Response to Geo Sink

  1. Jamie Toth says:

    What a great story! Once again, you leave me wanting more of the characters and the world in which they find themselves. I loved the characterization, the science, and the political intrigue! Well done!

    Alice is a great character, as is John, and I’d love to learn more about them and the amazing changes the Strand will bring to the world. You’ve done what ever writer wants to do – leave the reader wanting more!

    Thank you!

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