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The 100 MPG Carburetor and Other Self-Evident Truths

Robert Buettner


Robert Buettner worked as an international lawyer for the Marathon Oil Company. His life experiences inform this story, but only the ridiculous parts are true. During the early 1970s Muammar Khaddafi’s Revolutionary Command Council overthrew the Libyan monarchy, nationalized the oil holdings of companies including Marathon, and tried to use the proceeds to buy H-bombs from China. Those events rapidly precipitated the greatest transfer of wealth in human history, from the industrial democracies of the West to the Middle East’s Islamic theocracies. The echoes of those upheavals continue to shape world headlines today. Robert knows where Big Oil has hidden the 100 MPG carburetor, but if he told you he would have to kill your hybrid.


“Rathole? They better not still be making rathole!” MacRoy shook his head, leaned back in his chair and blew cigar smoke toward the three of us seated around his conference room’s table. He said to Faris, “That’s a misprint. Can’t you goddam read?”

Opposite MacRoy Faris, MacRoy’s drilling operations vice president, ran his finger across the perforated newsprint Morning Report telex. The report came from a drilling rig in the Libyan desert, five time zones east of us. In Libya, it was still May 10, 1970, which was good. However, despite the report’s title, in Libya it was no longer morning, which was very bad.

Faris cleared his throat. “No misprint, Hugh. They haven’t made an inch below twenty-one feet since yesterday.”

Shade and I, facing each other between MacRoy and Faris, swiveled our heads from Faris back to MacRoy like we were tennis spectators.

MacRoy lurched forward, slapped his hands against his mahogany tabletop. “Well won’t that be about the best Mother’s Day present Colonel Khaddafi ever got? And a goddam catastrophe for us!” MacRoy’s cheeks flared Canadian bacon pink and he shook his head. “That sneaky midget goat rapist.”

MacRoy snatched his cigar from between clenched teeth, then pounded it into each corner of his massive marble ashtray until the cigar crumbled.

I shrugged across the table at Shade.

Maybe MacRoy feared a midget goat rapist had snuck into his ashtray someplace.

In his frenzy MacRoy had pronounced “about” “a-boot.” Dr. Gilbert Hugh MacRoy, unlike the bacon his cheeks resembled, actually came from Canada. His doctorate, however, did not. It came from the London School of Economics.

Faris said, “We still got 'til midnight in Tripoli, Hugh. It’s noon there now.” Faris pronounced the operation commencement deadline “mid-naht.” Faris’ petroleum engineering doctorate came from Texas Eye & Am. In MacRoy’s universe that justified questioning whether Faris could goddam read.

MacRoy was Senior Executive Vice President of International Exploration for the mid-major Marathon Oil Company. Marathon was the only mid-major anything headquartered in Findlay, Ohio on Sunday, May 10, 1970. Or ever before. But I’ll get back to that.

You ask why making rathole on Mother’s Day, 1970 constituted a present for the fledgling revolutionary government of diminutive goatherd’s son Colonel Muammar al Khaddafi, and a goddam catastrophe for us? Well, it had nothing to do with animal sodomy, MacRoy’s allusions notwithstanding.

It had everything to do with the Petroleum Concession Agreement between the Kingdom of Libya, now Colonel Khaddafi’s People’s Republic of Libya, and Marathon Petroleum Libya, Ltd., a wholly owned subsidiary of Marathon Oil Company.

I swallowed.

MacRoy’s reaction boded ill for the attorney who had authored the agreement last aforesaid. Who was also the Corporate Secretary of Marathon Petroleum Libya, Ltd. Who was also me.

In oil well drilling, rathole was a second, shallow hole drilled prior to, and alongside, the main hole. When the drill pipe string was periodically withdrawn from the main hole, the string’s topmost section was lowered into the rathole and set aside, in the way that a sword was lowered into a scabbard, when the sword wasn’t poking something.

Making rathole was just as vital to oil drilling as a scabbard was to swordplay. But making rathole was just as ancillary to poking a meaningful hole in something.

Therefore, making rathole was expressly not “timely commencement of Operations, defined for purposes of this Concession Agreement as actual penetration of the Earth to find commercially recoverable hydrocarbon substances.”

If no actual well, as opposed to a mere rathole, was commenced by midnight local time at Tripoli, Libya on Mother’s Day, Marathon would lose its rights under the concession agreement. So far, those rights amounted to most of a billion barrels of oil in the ground that Marathon had discovered for Libya. In 1970 the price of one barrel of oil was $3.18, and the three billion dollar value of a billion barrels of oil was twice the value of the entire Rockefeller family fortune.

For lack of the right sort of hole in the ground, a vast fortune was about to become a windfall to a novice head of state who, despite standing five feet four inches tall, give or take a shoe lift, had ousted the Libyan monarchy by coup d’etat nine months earlier.

MacRoy ran a hand through his hair. “What the hell’s cocked it up out there?”

It was a fair question, even from MacRoy, who asked fair questions only when he lacked time to think up snotty ones. Oil wells were routinely drilled miles deep. Drilling a crummy fifty foot deep rathole through desert sand was normally even less difficult than dating a goat. Not that I had personally attempted either.

Faris ran a finger across the telex flimsy again. “They tore up two bits but couldn’t get below twenty feet.”

MacRoy frowned. “Why didn’t the idiots try a bull-nose diamond bit, then?”

Faris shook his head. “They did. Scrubbed the stones out of the matrix in two hours.”

MacRoy cast his eyes to the heavens while he unwrapped a fresh cigar. “Do I have to think of everything? Just have 'em twin the bloody hole.”

If a drill hit a boulder or other impenetrable problem near the surface, the borehole could often be moved a few feet one side or the other, maybe the rig itself could even be skidded sideways, then a second, “twin” hole could be drilled alongside the difficult one.

Faris released the perforated newsprint sheet and it drifted down onto the polished table. “They already tried. They moved eight feet left, then used up their last diamond bit grindin’ at the same depth. They’re gonna just spud the main borehole without a rathole, then come back to it.”

MacRoy puffed life into cigar number two. “How long’s that gonna take?”

Faris cocked his head, did the math. “Too long, prob’ly.”

MacRoy frowned, turned toward Shade. “What do you think, Shade?”

Shade sat with his bony shoulders hunched. His round, widow’s peaked head angled down above the hotshot pocket calculator the company had bought him, and he pressed a single key on it.

Shade said, “I think they won’t make the deadline. I think we can salvage the concession, but it’ll be expensive. I think the obstruction sounds interesting.”

MacRoy pointed at Shade’s calculator. “That thing tells you that?” “That thing” was no bigger than two packs of Marlboros, ran on flashlight batteries, and could add, subtract, multiply, divide, extract square roots, and display the result in glowing red numbers. The amazing thing was that it did all that for about the price of a family’s twenty-five inch color console Zenith.

Shade kept his head down, shook it. “No. I wasn’t using it for that.”

I knew what Shade was using it for. He did most math in his head, anyway. So he had rewired his calculator so that all it did now was count down, with a single button press, the number of days left until MacRoy retired.

The concept was mine, the execution Shade’s. To remind us both that we took MacRoy’s profane bullying now so we could remake the world later. Shade was MacRoy’s heir apparent. Once Shade took over MacRoy’s job, the two of us were naïve enough to think we would then nudge the company toward saving the world.

MacRoy asked, “Then how the hell do you know all that, Shade?”

“Tripoli radio reported a Khamsin started blowing in south central Libya an hour ago. Even if the sand storm blows out in a few hours, which it could in May based on historic weather patterns, the rig crew’ll be cleaning up 'til well past midnight.”

“Oh.” MacRoy pouted. “But you think we can save the concession?”

Shade nodded without looking up. “For now, yes. Khaddafi knows three out of four Libyans can’t even read, much less engineer, construct, and operate wells, pipelines, natural gas plants, and marine tanker terminals. Mobil, Esso, all us foreign concessionaires, are building infrastructure that Khaddafi desperately needs, but that his work force simply can’t create. He’ll accept an additional percentage from us now in exchange for a modification of the agreement, so he doesn’t spook all his foreign investors. Then in a couple years he’ll nationalize everything. Then—” Having answered MacRoy’s question, Shade cut himself off.

I knew what Shade had almost said, because Shade had whispered it to me as we walked down the hall to this meeting. Shade believed that Khaddafi’s nationalization of us in a couple of years would trigger similar realignments across the oil-producing world. The result would be the greatest transfer of wealth in human history, from the West’s democracies to the Middle East’s Islamic theocracies. It would reshape the next century.

MacRoy’s immediate vision stopped short of the next century. He crossed his arms, grunted, then addressed Shade’s final pronouncement. “Why’s a boulder interesting?”

Shade shrugged. “How is an eight foot wide diamond not interesting?”

Shade’s title was Special Assistant to the Executive Vice President of International Exploration. But he also held the ceremonial rank of Vice President of Marathon’s Libyan subsidiary, like I was its corporate Secretary.

Shade’s doctorate was from the same place as the rest of his formal education, the University of Nonexistent. But as Special Assistant his real job was troubleshooter, and he had risen from clerk to the job by demonstrating such intuitive genius that he seemed to see the future. Most people just called him “Shade” because that was all the name he introduced himself by. But also because people expected someone with Shade’s gift to go by one name, like “Merlin,” or “Houdini.”

I helped Shade close on his house, so I knew his birth-certificate name was “Prometheus Robin Shade.” He had decided at age three that was too long to write out in cursive. He said his mother named him Prometheus because she was a small college classics professor, and Robin because he was born on the first day of spring.

At the time I asked Shade why anybody who worked for MacRoy, who fired minions like he discarded cigars, would risk buying a house. Shade replied that he was an optimist in all things. Me, I rented.

MacRoy narrowed his eyes, pointed his new cigar at Shade, his troubleshooter. “Get your ass over there and unscrew this pooch.”

The more MacRoy characterized and metaphored, the more it occurred to me that the profession of domesticated animal in Canada must have been dodgy business. Maybe it was the winters. At least MacRoy hadn’t linked me to the contract language that had brought us low.

MacRoy shifted his gaze, then aimed his smoldering Macanudo between my eyes. “Take the shyster with you. He screwed this pooch in the first place.”

Shade removed his thick glasses and rubbed his eyes. “Are you sending me with a free hand, Hugh?”

MacRoy nodded. “Make any deal you have to. The shyster, here, will make it legal.”

I raised my eyebrows. A free hand?

Arranging transatlantic phone conferences was slow and cumbersome. Telex was worse. And neither, coming out of Khaddafi’s Libya, was entirely secure from eavesdropping and decryption.

So international executives like Shade typically were elected corporate officers empowered to bind their corporation with a pen stroke. And they took along a lawyer who was an elected corporate secretary to write up a deal and to attest their signature. But everybody in every oil company knew the team really didn’t dare sell the farm without approval from the boss back home. Unless the boss expressly gave you a free hand before you left.

In this case the reason MacRoy was giving Shade and the shyster a free hand wasn’t communication difficulty. MacRoy wanted somebody besides himself to blame if the pooch remained screwed.

Shade said, “Hugh, our negotiating position will be weak. Khaddafi’s the one with the machine guns and the dungeons.”

I swallowed.

Those were excellent reasons why the shyster should stay safely at home.

I shook my head. “I can’t go. I’m scheduled to be in Washington in the morning.”

Khaddafi’s business may have been revolution, and America’s business may have been business. However Washington’s business was, first, to be shocked – shocked! – about problems about which it could and would do jack squat, and, second, to then find someone besides itself to blame for them.

MacRoy snorted. “That horseshit hearing?”

For once, MacRoy was right. Horseshit underdescribed the vacuity of the Senate hearing I was scheduled to attend. It had been convened because average voters, whose economics degrees came from the same place as Shade’s, readily believed that thirty-six cents per gallon was a suspiciously high price to pay for gasoline. But then, voters also readily believed that the American oil industry had purchased, then hidden, the prototype of an automobile carburetor that enabled even the most gluttonous Oldsmobile to wring one hundred miles per gallon from regular gas.

Actually, the oil industry hid the carburetor in the same dungeon where it kept the flying saucers and the Second Gunman who shot Kennedy.

MacRoy shook his head at me. “You go to Libya. One of the other shysters can go to Washington. Hell, you’re breeding like rats on the third floor these days.”

True, but that was because in 1970 the Code of Federal Regulations and vacuous Senate hearings were breeding like rats, too. Like most American companies, we were hiring more lawyers just to keep up.

Shade stood, gathered his notebooks. I gathered my rat droppings, and the two of us headed for the street with a brief detour by our offices. If you worked international for MacRoy you kept a packed bag, and your passport, handy. You also kept your resume updated. Shade’s and my plan to remake the world was not free from risk.

MacRoy had his phone in one hand, covered the mouthpiece with the other and called after us. “There’ll be a car downstairs and the JetStar’ll be on the ramp. At least don’t pork it up worse, for Christ’s sake.”

MacRoy’s inspiring sendoff lent wings to our feet, and Shade and I were wheels up eastbound sixty-two minutes later.

It was impossible to conduct operations in twenty-three time zones from a city whose population was less than the Cleveland Indians drew on Free Bat Day without a corporate aviation department.

So MacRoy commanded the largest air force headquartered in midwestern North America that did not haul either passengers for hire or hydrogen bombs. MacRoy didn’t mind us being numerically inferior to the Strategic Air Command, but I do think he coveted their nuclear capability.

After our first fuel stop—a Lockheed JetStar’s four jet engines had no carburetors and therefore even an oil company’s model got considerably less than a hundred miles per gallon—we flew through the night above the Atlantic.

I sat facing Shade, and the wood-paneled cockpit bulkhead behind him, on a reclineable leather throne that matched his. The main cabin’s other seats, and the sofa that ran along the side of the main cabin’s rear third, were empty. A table top that we had pulled out from the JetStar’s curved interior skin separated the two of us.

Shade had unrolled across the table’s polished wood surface a seismic section, a paper scroll cross section snapshot of the Earth’s uppermost crust, constructed from sound waves reflected off subterranean rock layers.

The particular section Shade was interpreting depicted a distant part of the Earth’s crust. That part underlay some third world country that smelled like urine, and everybody who believed in the 100 MPG carburetor knew the self-evident truth that it held no oil whatsoever. Which was why oil explorers like Shade had to be optimists in all things. Of course, everybody knew there was no oil there only until some optimistic oil company gambled, and seven times in ten lost, a fortune poking meaningful holes in that part of the world, as Marathon had in Libya. When the oil company discovered All the Oil Left on Earth, everybody suddenly knew that the oil company had known the oil was there all along. The oil company knew this from consulting the secret map that was kept in the dungeon with the flying saucers, etc.

Shade’s slim fingers trembled slightly as the plane’s engines whistled us through the darkness. He traced the section’s blurry blue lines left to right. As he thought, his lips moved.

I asked, “Whatcha doin’ Shade?”

“Eating peanuts.” In his off hand Shade cupped cocktail peanuts that he periodically dabbed at with his tongue.

MacRoy never troubled to have his minions’ flights catered, so all the two of us had to eat were canned peanuts scavenged from the drawer beneath the main cabin’s sofa.

More accurately, Shade was eating some peanuts. More of them slipped between his fingers than his tongue captured. The escapees hopped and rolled across the section’s blueprint paper. The peanuts left behind little blebs and grease trails that some future geophysicist would mistake for All the Oil Left on Earth.

It wasn’t entirely the peanuts’ fault. Lately Shade had seemed to me to have become an increasingly messy eater.

I pointed at the seismic section. “No. Seriously.”

Shade kept tracing and tongue-dabbing and said, “I think they’ve miscalculated NMO. I’m redoing it.”

NMO was Normal Move Out, a correction applied to data recovered from seismic listening devices that “heard” sound waves produced by exploding dynamite at the Earth’s surface. The waves were reflected back up to geophones on the surface by the rock layers below. NMO was determined by an equation wherein v squared was the square of the velocity of the medium above the reflecting interface. Plus a bunch of other stuff that I understood even less.

I understood even that bit only because I once cross examined an expert witness during a well spacing hearing in Wyoming. The expert was a doctor of geophysics and taught at MIT. He testified that he couldn’t revise his NMO calculations to answer my hypothetical question because he had made his original calculations only with the assistance of a computer bigger than the hearing room.

Shade, whose doctorate came from the University of Nonexistent, was recalculating NMO in his head while eating peanuts.

“Shade, do you ever think you’re a genius?”

Shade didn’t look up. “If ninety percent of genius is timely perception of the obvious, then yes. But anyone can perceive the obvious.”

“Anyone can’t do NMO in his head.”

“Can’t is different from doesn’t. It’s not that hard.”

I stared out my window, at the full white Moon, reflecting the sun’s rays like a searchlight onto the cloud tops miles beneath us. Then I stared at the stars that winked beyond the Moon. “Shade, it took mankind until ten months ago just to reach the Moon. If that was so hard, how long do you think it will take before we can reach the stars?”

Shade looked up from his blueprint scroll. “Forever. If you hold with Tsiolkovsky’s Rocket Equation.”

“And what lawyer doesn’t?”

Shade smiled. “Basically, as applied to traveling light years of distance, the Rocket Equation postulates a paradox. To reach the stars within even several human lifetimes, a rocket needs to accelerate its mass to a velocity that’s a substantial fraction of the speed of light. A rocket accelerates its mass by burning fuel. The more the rocket accelerates, the more fuel it needs. But the more fuel the rocket carries, the larger its mass, so the more fuel it needs to carry. And so on.”

I stared out at the stars, suddenly more distant than ever. “In English, you’re saying we can’t get there from here?”

“No, I’m saying we can’t get there with rockets like the ones that got us to the Moon.” Shade pointed out his own window at the Moon. “The Moon shines because the sun lights it. The sun produces the energy that lights the Moon by fusing hydrogen atoms. Fusion power would change the equation. Fusion would provide inexhaustible clean energy beyond all the oil left on Earth.” Shade smiled. “Just imagine.”

I smiled back, then reclined my seat and closed my eyes. “Imagine? I imagine fusion would put you and me out of jobs faster than the 100 MPG carburetor would. Now I’ll have nightmares.”

Shade said, “Not nightmares. Dreams.”

I nodded as I drifted off.

Shade and I got along, despite opposite skill sets, because we shared dreams. The reason I helped Shade close on his house was because it had been the house I grew up in. I sold it after my mother no longer needed it, because pancreatic cancer ate her alive. It turned out that pancreatic cancer also ate Shade’s mother, the classics professor, alive. Shade and I discovered that we shared altruistic dreams to change such things for the better. Eradicate diseases. Gift mankind with cheap, clean, limitless energy. Change the world in ways that mattered. But at the moment, we had our hands full changing whatever mattered to the likes of MacRoy.

When the risen sun woke me, Shade’s seat was empty.

As I shuffled in my socks, stiff from sleeping in my seat, to pee and shave in the john in the JetStar’s tail, I passed him, curled up on the sofa asleep and dreaming like a prematurely balding bundle of twigs. His blanket had slipped onto the floor, and as I picked it up and retucked him I looked out the window above the sofa’s back.

Below us, the Mediterranean already glittered, turquoise blue as a backyard pool. By the bulkhead clock we were fifty minutes out from clearing customs and immigration in Tripoli, on the easternmost edge of Middle Eastern oil development, and thus the eastern boundary of the current definition of All the Oil Left on Earth.

Eighty years before man landed on the Moon, it was a self-evident truth that All the Oil Left on Earth was contained within a subterranean puddle centered on Findlay, Ohio.

The Standard Oil Trust controlled not only the puddle and a few like it, but controlled the means to refine All the Oil Left on Earth and to transport it. Therefore, the ancestors of the politicians who fretted over the 100 MPG carburetor conspiracy broke the Standard Oil Trust into bits.

The bit that came to be called Marathon Oil Company was one of the bits that found, then produced, Standard’s oil, which is why Marathon was in Findlay. I told you I would get back to that.

But here’s the thing: by 1970 all of that oil had been pumped out of the ground. The only bulk commodity that came out of the ground around Findlay in 1970 was sugar beets. Based on prior self-evident truth as known by the politicians who had broken up Standard Oil, the world had run out of oil when the puddle in Findlay was used up.

Yet the world had not run out of oil. How could that be, you ask? Well, it turned out that All the Oil Left on Earth was actually not under Findlay, Ohio after all. It was under Texas! Then All the Oil turned out to be under the Dutch West Indies! Then Persia! And so on.

Every time the politicians got the cuffs on the conspirators who had hoarded All the Oil Left on Earth, the Earth made liars out them.

Oil, unlike politicians, was so supremely useful that it became the Earth’s biggest business. Some people loved the good that oil fueled. Some people hated the evil oil fueled. Oil drove man’s prosperity, but also drove man’s challenges to his environment, and drove many of the never ending wars by which men challenged one another. Like most useful things, oil wound up empowering worse-than-useless individuals like MacRoy, Muammar al Khaddafi, and most Washington politicians.

It occurred to me then that oil might be the root of mankind’s problems, even though it kept me employed.

When I emerged from the john, Shade was already back on his throne. I hefted my two lawyer’s brief bags out of the rear closet, set them beside my seat, then flopped down across from Shade.

He sipped coffee while he brushed peanut debris off his shirt. “I had the pilots radio ahead. I made some changes to our plan.”

“We have a plan?” I cocked an eyebrow. “Will I like the changes?”

“Yes, we do. And no, you won’t.” He shrugged. “Well, at least the pilots didn’t like 'em.”

I wrinkled my forehead.

What the pilots liked, indeed loved, was flying the JetStar, which was a hairy-chested design boasting four jet engines that hung off its rear flanks like a gunfighter’s pistols. The Jetstar also boasted not one, but two, enormous phallic fuel tanks built into its wings’ leading edges. James Bond’s super villain nemesis Auric Goldfinger even owned one.

“Why don’t the pilots like your changes, Shade?”

Shade said, “I told them we’re just gonna stop in Tripoli to clear immigration and customs, take on sandwiches and fuel, then go visit the rig.”

I nodded. “Aha. No wonder, then.”

The pilots disliked many things, but particularly disliked taking their beloved JetStar into bad neighborhoods. Desert rig airstrips were bulldozed to accommodate genuinely hairy-chested cargo planes, not tiny-tired super villain luxorockets.

I frowned. “The rig? The deadline’s blown. I thought we just were going to Tripoli, to renegotiate. Besides, the rig strip’s for cargo planes. And what if there’s another sandstorm?”

Shade rolled his eyes. “I’m landing on the same dirt that you and the pilots will be. Just be glad I remembered sandwiches.” Then he sat back, crossed his arms, and stared out his window.

One reason MacRoy gave Shade a free hand, which included command of the aircraft until such time as the pilots mutinied, was that over the years Shade had demonstrated that he wasn’t afraid to use it. Shade was skinny and balding and myopic and seemed to get clumsier by the day. But once Shade had done the math in his head neither whining shysters, sandstorms, nor gloom of night broke his will.

More to the point, over the years Shade’s will and his intuitive genius had found Marathon enough of All the Oil Left on Earth that our shareholders had made a bundle.

As the JetStar crossed the coast I bowed to the inevitable and pouted out my own window at North Africa.

On the tarmac in Tripoli we stayed aboard with the door open and breathed in the hot, humid coastal Mediterranean air while we savored sandwiches laced with the kerosene aroma of jet fuel.

The customs and immigration guy also boarded us, pocketed the two crisp U.S. twenties each of us had inserted in our visa-less passports, chalk-marked my two locked brief bags as “inspected” without opening them, then left without a word.

My bags contained no briefs, but fifths of scotch and several copies of the latest Playboy for our expatriate employees in Libya.

Both commodities were forbidden in the old and Islamic Kingdom of Libya, and even more stringently forbidden in Khaddafi’s more Islamic People’s Republic of Libya. Khaddafi, like Shade and me, wanted to change the world for the better. We just differed with him on the definition of better and the mechanism to change the world.

In retrospect, we should have taken a lesson from Khaddafi’s Revolutionary Command Council military junta about the difficulty of world changing. Because the only practical difference that regime change in the Middle East made was that the price of sin rose, in this case from a single twenty dollar bill to two of them.

The practical difference between landing a JetStar in Tripoli and landing one in the desert was, however, greater.

When the JetStar banked over the Rig That Could Not Make Rathole, the orange windsock alongside the airstrip that had been scraped out of the Sahara’s ochre sands flapped parallel to the ground and perpendicular to the airstrip’s long axis.

Landing in a strong crosswind meant the plane landed cocked sideways, and crooked, like a canoe about to capsize. It was bad to capsize a canoe. It was worse to capsize an airplane full of kerosene.

As we plummeted toward our fiery death I clutched my seat’s arms so hard that my fingers trembled white. Across from me Shade rode backwards, grinning, his fingers loose and barely trembling.

One of or tiny tires struck the desert first, and jarred the jet back into the sky. We floated like angels-to-be, then the pilots flattened and straightened our trajectory, and Shade and I settled onto North Africa. Over the thrust reversers’ roar and the clatter of gravel against the JetStar’s belly, grinning Shade shouted, “Wasn’t that exciting?”

Getting to remote drill sites was often exciting. Staying at them for the months required to drill miles into the Earth rarely was.

The drill site was a hamlet of living and laboratory trailers centered on the drilling rig. The rig comprised a steel skeleton mast that rose one hundred feet above a complex of motors, hoists, pipe racks, pumps, and rectangular pits in the ground, each scooped out by a bulldozer, and as wide as its blade. During drilling the pits were filled with a mud-like fluid that circulated like blood, pumped and re-pumped down through the hollow drill stem, then out and up through the borehole itself.

While Shade sought out and conferred with the rig’s senior toolpusher about what Shade wanted done, I sought a place where I could finally sleep horizontally.

I found an empty bunk in the logging contractor’s trailer. The bunk was empty because “logging” involved dangling fencepost-shaped steel tools from cables, then lowering the tools deep into the borehole to record a log of what was down there. The tool gathered information by, among other things, bombarding the surrounding rock with neutrons.

But Shade and I were here because there was no borehole to bombard. Therefore, the logging contractor’s trailer was unoccupied.

The trailer was clean, air conditioned, and probably not radioactive. I say probably because many of the logging tools were radioactive. All things considered, however, barnstorming the sky with Shade was likely to kill me before radiation poisoning could. So I kicked off my loafers, lay back atop the trailer bunk’s blanket, and slept.

I was awakened in darkness by the clatter of rummaging in the trailer’s kitchen.

Foraging Bedouins? My heart thumped as I stretched for, then flipped, the light switch.

Instead of Bedouins I saw a twiglike figure wearing baggy, muddy derrickman’s coveralls.

He held aloft in two hands, by its handle, what looked like a yellow lunch box. His eyes glittered behind his glasses as he stared up at the box, like he had found one of Goldfinger’s bullion bars. “Thank God!”

I sat up, scratched. “Didn’t get enough sandwiches, Shade?”

As he turned and dashed out of the trailer carrying his box, Shade called over his shoulder, “Get out here! Now!”

I stepped into my loafers and stumbled out into the clear cold two a.m. desert night.

A flood light halo englobed the drilling rig’s base, and a string of naked electric bulbs climbed the rig mast so it resembled a miniature Eiffel Tower. The sound and smell of diesel engines rumbled to me on the breeze. All that was usual. Time was money and therefore rigs operated twenty-four hours every day.

As I shuffled closer to the rig, I realized that the engines I heard and smelled were those of the electric generator that powered the lights and of a dirty yellow Caterpillar bulldozer. The Cat idled at one end of a newly dug, 'dozer-blade-wide trench. The engines of the rig itself had gone silent. I frowned.

The newly-dug trench looked to be deeper than a normal mud pit, because a makeshift of reinforcing wire and rusty steel pipes bordered its top edge, as though holding back the trench’s unconsolidated sides. All of it deviated from normal operations, and the only person on-site who could order such a deviation was Shade. My frown deepened.

A handful of hard-hatted rig crewmen stood leaning along the rig floor’s rail, which was elevated fifteen feet above the ground on a steel frame. They peered down into the new trench with the detached bemusement of baseball bleacherites watching a knuckle baller warm up.

The idle rig crew and shut-down rig engines meant that, although time was money, we not only weren’t making hole, we weren’t even trying.

What the hell? I shifted from walking to a dead run, stopped at the trench’s edge, and stared down into its floodlit depths.

Twenty feet below me, Shade knelt over something muddy in the sloppy sand, holding above it the yellow box I had watched him take from the trailer. My heart skipped.

It must not have been a lunch box, but a first aid kit. We were shut down because there had been a grisly accident. Oil drilling was a greasy, dangerous business. Death happened.

Shade backed away from his patient, then waved his hand at a rubber booted roughneck who stood beside Shade. Both of them stood ankle deep in slop. The roughneck held a thick canvas water hose that trailed back up and over the side of the pit. At Shade’s wave the roughneck opened the hose’s valve and blasted the patient.

I screamed down into the pit, “Shade! What the hell have you done?”

Shade turned, visored a hand over his eyes, then waved me to join him in the slop.

By the time I slipped and slid and stood alongside Shade, the roughneck had stopped hosing.

The patient gleamed beneath the floodlights.

It was a cylinder, eight feet long, give or take, tapered at both ends like a slim football, and gleamed wet chrome silver, as smooth and unmarked as the bumper of an Oldsmobile fresh off the assembly line.

My mouth hung open. “What the hell is that thing?”

Shade turned the yellow box in his hand. It had a round dial like a speedometer on its top side, behind the handle. “It’s a Geiger counter. Some of the logging trailers carry them.”

“Not that thing.” I grabbed his head with two hands and pointed it at the elongated silver football. It was suddenly obvious that the object before me was the obstruction that had blocked our drilling. While I slept Shade had ordered a hole bulldozed to unearth it. “I mean that thing!”

Shade tugged his lip. “Well…”

Geiger counter?

My stomach heaved.

MacRoy’s competitor air force, the Strategic Air Command, the friendly Omaha Midwesterners with the hydrogen bombs, had operated, out of Wheelus Air Force Base, west of Tripoli, for the last twenty years. Operated and sometimes crashed.

I looked around for some mud to vomit on, rolled my eyes. “Christ. It’s a hydrogen bomb? Shade, we tried to drill a hole in a lost hydrogen bomb? Twice? And you just dug it up and ran it over with a bulldozer?”

Shade smiled, took my hand and forced it down until my palm was flat against the cylinder’s mirror-smooth surface. His hand shook, and I suppose that mine did, too. But when he lifted his hand away, I still felt the faintest vibration and warmth from the object. “What does that mean, Shade?”

He pulled me upright. “That it isn’t a hydrogen bomb. For now, it’s best that’s all I tell you. Now, here’s what I need you to do. Take the JetStar up to Tripoli and make a deal with your friend Abi Jalloud.”

I gulped. Shade had a free hand to make any deal he chose, and to order me as the company’s lawyer to make it happen. But this?

Abdessalam Jalloud, like Khaddafi, had risen from goat country beginnings to revolutionary army officer to member of Libya’s ruling Revolutionary Command Council. Earlier in 1970 Khaddafi had, it was widely reported, sent Jalloud to Red China to buy a hydrogen bomb for one hundred million dollars. As I said, Shade and I differed with Kaddafi on the appropriate mechanism to change the world.

Apparently the Chinese differed too, because Jalloud returned to Tripoli empty handed. So Khaddafi had put him in charge of managing Libya’s oil resources. Therefore, I had negotiated with Jalloud before. Abi did like Westerners better than his boss did. But my idea of a friend wasn’t a guy who laid his loaded pistol on the table while he negotiated.

My jaw dropped. “You want me to sell a fake hydrogen bomb to a revolutionary with a gun?”

“No.” Shade shook his head. “I want you to buy this object from the People’s Republic of Libya.”

“What?”

“You’re right. Barter would be a more accurate description. Trade a bigger share of Marathon’s oil reserves for it. We expected to give up a bigger share to preserve the concession anyway.”

I shook my head back at Shade. “This regime won’t—”

“Yes, it will. You saw when we cleared customs. Regime change in the Middle East merely increases prices.”

My eyes widened. “Amend the Concession Agreement? That will take—”

Shade nodded. “All it will take is an offer that looks so good that Jalloud will insist that the suckers sign a binding deal before he lets them out of his country. I think an extra hundred million barrels should get his attention, don’t you?”

It did. I did what Shade told me to not because it made sense to me, but because it made sense to Shade, who I thought was a genius. And maybe just a little bit because MacRoy, who I thought was a mean-spirited idiot, wouldn’t like it. We were wheels up off the Sahara forty-eight hours later with a signed amendment in hand.

By the time MacRoy climbed out of the back seat of the car that drove him out to meet us in Findlay, it was night in the Eastern United States. The JetStar already sat parked under the lights in the company hangar, regal amid turboprop Beechcrafts and pipeline patrol Cessnas.

MacRoy frowned at the JetStar as he stalked toward Shade and me. The pilots walked around the plane, pouting and grumbling as they fingered chips in the paintwork. They had already removed to the hangar floor the seats Shade had made them unbolt and store sideways for the flight, and one of the pilots groused and sucked at a finger he had skinned while unbolting the seats.

MacRoy’s face gleamed extraordinarily pink that night, so he had obviously gotten the telex Shade had sent when we stopped for fuel on the way home.

First MacRoy kicked an unbolted seat. “You porked my airplane!”

The shareholders’ airplane, actually.

MacRoy stopped in front of us, nostrils flared so wide that his nose hairs showed. “What the hell kind of joke was that goddam telex, Shade?”

“No joke. Do you want to see it?”

Shade and I climbed back aboard the JetStar, and MacRoy followed, at least far enough to poke his head in and peer back down the main cabin.

Shade’s football lay on the rear sofa, visible because the seats that had obstructed its passage now lay unbolted on the hangar floor. The mysterious silver torpedo was wrapped in the blanket I had tucked Shade in with, and was secured with a spider’s web of knotted cargo straps. It looked just as it had in the trench, a gleaming three hundred pound streamlined capsule so hard that no bulldozer blade nor industrial diamond could scratch it.

MacRoy snorted. “That’s nothing but a goddam fighter plane drop tank. They find whole B-24s left over from World War II buried in the Sahara.” He backed down the JetStar’s stairs, and we joined him on the hangar floor, where he stood, arms crossed, tapping one foot.

MacRoy’s hands shook as he stared at Shade. “You traded an additional ten percent of our Libyan reserves, a hundred million barrels of oil, for a war souvenir?”

Shade shook his head. “Given the depth of burial and the strength of the outer shell it’s no human relic. It’s emitting a little radiation, but if it contained fissionable material it would be emitting more. Or the shielding would weigh tons.”

MacRoy closed his eyes, nodded. “Ah. An itty bitty spaceship from Mars. Much better, Shade. Much better value.”

Shade said, “Not a spaceship, necessarily. Though it could be spaceship flotsam or jetsam. Or a child’s lost toy. Or a robot exploration probe. Regardless, it is the construct of an alien intellect. But not constructed on Mars. Or anywhere in the Solar System. There’s nothing near us but cold, dead rocks. So whatever powered this thing, and is still powering it, has continued to operate for decades of travel time. Or centuries. Or longer.”

MacRoy opened his eyes, narrowed them at Shade. “If you’re right, Shade, and if you’re right I swear before the Lord Jesus Christ that I am a goat rapist, so what? It’s a museum piece. It’s a headline in Popular Science. But it’s not worth a hundred barrels of oil, much less a hundred million barrels.” MacRoy shook his head again, stared at the hangar’s concrete floor. “Shade, you’ve done fine work for this company. For many years. But you’ve just traded a cow for a magic bean that fits on an airplane sofa.”

Shade opened his mouth. I touched his arm to shut him up. He shrugged me off. “You don’t get it, do you, Hugh? This object contains a hydrogen fusion reactor. And one that’s generations more sophisticated than any reactor man could develop if we devoted our combined gross planetary product to the development for the next hundred years. If we can reverse engineer it, energy will effectively become a free good.”

“Gross planetary product? A free good? Now you’re dictating to a Doctor of Economics about economics? We’re an oil company, not an energy company, you uneducated little snot!”

I nudged Shade again to shut him up, but he was rolling.

“And the railroads who decided they were railroad companies and not transportation companies, Hugh? Go buy a plane ticket from them! A hundred million barrels of oil in the ground won’t be worth even a regular bean. Think about it, Hugh. If oil is the root of all evil like people say, this can cure it. And the patents on hydrogen fusion will be worth the Earth. To anyone with a brain, that’s a self-evident truth.” Shade snorted, shook his head. “Hugh, don’t be an even bigger fool than usual.”

MacRoy sighed, though his lips trembled. “Shade, you’re relieved of your duties. Terminated. Fired! Clean out your desk. Tonight.” Then MacRoy’s eyes found me as he pointed at Shade. “How do we break this fool’s deal with the ragheads?”

I took a deep breath. The politic thing that a lawyer, especially one who valued his regular paycheck, would do would be to begin by offering a plausible argument that could be made on the client’s behalf. But in a moment that MacRoy would have found unusual in a shyster, I told him the exact truth as I saw it. “We don’t break the deal. Because we can’t. Hugh, I didn’t write the amendment to be breakable. By either side. If Shade’s right, it’ll be Khaddafi who wants out, anyway, not us. But we’ll have a strong case. A stronger case against Libya for title to the antiquity than the British have against Greece for keeping the Elgin Marbles. And the marbles are still in the British Museum.”

“Have you gone as crazy as Shade?” MacRoy rolled his eyes. “Antiquity? It’s junk.”

During that moment, I agreed that maybe Shade had gone crazy. He certainly had just said things an employee was crazy to say to his boss. But I also hoped that I could still save my friend’s job. I stepped alongside MacRoy and whispered behind my hand, “Sir, if we do choose to try and break the amendment, Mr. Shade’s testimony as the company signatory would be critical. A current employee makes a more cooperative witness than a bitter former one.”

MacRoy’s eyebrows shot up. “Christ! You’re supposed to be my shyster!” He pointed at Shade. “Not his. But now you’re bullshitting me to save your little buddy’s job? You’re fired, too, you disloyal son of a bitch!”

MacRoy turned his back and stalked to his car, the only sounds echoing in the hangar’s vastness the clicks of his heels on concrete and Shade’s and my breathing.

When Shade and I stood there, small and alone, he sighed, and his lip trembled, but his voice rang firm and confident. “I guess there’s no such thing as self-evident truth.”

I said, “There’s one.”

He cocked an eyebrow. “Oh?”

“You and I are screwed worse than MacRoy’s goat.”

. . .

On May 11, 2020, the smiling Honorary Chairman of the Green Sierra Coalition leaned forward across the table in Prometheus Energy’s visitor conference room. Fifty years before the room had been the conference room of Dr. Gilbert Hugh MacRoy.

The environmental group’s Honorary Chairman was a Hollywood actor who lent his celebrity to environmental causes. He was tan, trim and wore a T-shirt with a whale on it beneath a tailored silk jacket.

Nodding round at the four other guests in the room he said to me, “I think I speak for us all when I say that after fifty years it’s a privilege to finally hear that historic story from one of the men who lived it, Mr. Trueman.”

Trueman was me. Trueman was I. Trueman was the person who is telling you this story. Morton Trueman, Esq., General Counsel, Secretary, and one of two shareholders of Prometheus Energy, Inc.

One of the heads that nodded at the Hollywood activist’s comments, the Secretary General of the United Nations, held up one cocoa colored finger, while he grasped his robe with his other hand. “Mr. Trueman, before we continue, you mentioned ground rules for our conversation with Mr. Shade?”

He pronounced “rules” “roo-walls.”

I nodded. “Mr. Shade has insisted on a few. However, he doesn’t really want this occasion to be about rules, Mr. Secretary, but about cooperation.”

The Hollywood activist frowned. “What could we ask or say in the next sixty minutes that could bother a man who nobody has seen in the last fifty years?”

The others glared at him. They didn’t want this meeting called off.

He was actor enough that he instantly turned his frown to a smile that replicated all of theirs.

The lucky five smiled the smiles of the flattered. Shade had culled these five people, from a short list of the two thousand most influential people in the world, to meet with him on May 11, 2020. It was the fiftieth anniversary of Shade’s discovery of what the patents called the Prometheus Process Fusion Reactor Prototype, and what the New York Times called the most important machine in the history of the world.

Fifty years before these five arrived in this room with me, MacRoy and Marathon’s board had rethought MacRoy’s decision to fire Shade and me. The board had also thought about the gathering storm of expropriation that, going forward from 1970, Libya might trigger across the Middle East. Then they upheld MacRoy’s decision and left us fired. But in return for our agreement to cooperate in future proceedings they assigned to Shade all Marathon’s rights in what the board regarded as airplane debris of nominal value.

And then Shade, like his namesake from Greek mythology, Prometheus, stole the secret of fire from the gods.

We took a second mortgage on his house in Findlay, pooled the rest of our savings, then bet the pile on reverse engineering Shade’s alien curiosity into the first commercial Prometheus hydrogen fusion reactor. It wasn’t easy. It took Shade four months just to invent and build a drill that got him a look inside the football without damaging its guts.

But we ultimately repaid Shade’s mortgage. We also remade the world. Prometheus Energy became the most valuable business enterprise in the history of the human race.

I looked at the Chairperson and CEO of ManCo, the multinational manufacturing giant that was second in worldwide revenue only to Prometheus. She had short, gray hair and granny glasses. She also had an athletic female body guard wearing a blazer who stood, arms crossed, in the conference room’s corner. But I’ll get back to that.

I said, “First ground rule. No rehashing Prometheus’ rights. Every tribunal from the Supreme Court of the United States to the World Court in the Hague sided with us.”

Everybody smiled, nodded.

After we got our first reactor on line, some oil companies saw the future as clearly as Shade did. They licensed the technology from us. They, and we, prospered. Today Prometheus and its licensees sold squeaky-clean, dirt-cheap energy to giant enterprises like ManCo. But we also sold it to you. To light your home and cook your food and power your electric runabout and do all the other things a world of human beings want to do. But today you buy that energy for a song. Which gives you more time and money to write a song if that’s what you want to do.

However, many oil companies, like Marathon, chose to believe, as Shade had predicted, that they were oil companies, not energy companies. They slugged it out against Prometheus, in the courts and and legislatures of the world as well as against hydrogen fusion in the marketplace. They lost in every arena and they withered away to nothing.

MacRoy, by the way, died in rural Manitoba two years after Marathon folded. He suffered a sudden and massive heart attack in a goat pasture. I won’t speculate.

But we didn’t buy the Marathon building for Prometheus’ headquarters for spite or revenge, or even because it was cheap.

We bought it because we knew from experience that a business that covered twenty-three other time zones could be run effectively from there, and still give our employees time to raise their families or write songs if they wanted to.

Besides, Shade still owned the same house in Findlay that he had owned when he and I got fired, the house he remortgaged to grubstake Prometheus. Although Shade hadn’t lived in it for years. I’ll get back to that, too. Unhappily.

I looked at the Network Chairwoman, whose intrusive theatrics not only had goaded us to locate in quiet, remote Findlay but were also a reason Shade was finally meeting the world today.

She was a middle-aged bottle blonde with cheeks stretched so tight by cosmetic surgery that they looked like translucent pink cellophane. Her clothes looked expensive.

I said, “Second ground rule. No questions about crackpot conspiracy theories or about Mr. Shade’s personal life.”

She frowned so hard at the implied criticism of the media’s mischaracterizations of Shade that I was afraid her cheeks would split.

Back in the days when she had the looks that made her on-air talent, she was the first one who cocked an eyebrow and called Shade “Secretive recluse P. Robin Shade.”

I suppose she had demonized Shade because calling him a smart, hardworking guy who owned a three bedroom ranch downwind from the sugar beet processing plant in a small town wouldn’t make him sound like a super villain who lived inside a hollowed out volcano.

There was nothing like making the world a better place to make people assume you must be up to no good. After fifty years, Shade had wearied of the mistaken assumptions and of the conspiracy paparazzi. So we invited the network head here to see for herself the reality of the conspiracy myths that she had started and that her industry had perpetuated.

Although the main reason for this get together was to ask her and the other institutions represented by these five prominent world citizens to finally pull together. Shade had finally conceded that saving the world was a job too big for us to continue alone.

I said, “And no questions about how much Prometheus and Mr. Shade are worth. Private corporation, private citizen. Both pay their taxes in full and on time, and do good work with what’s left over.”

The media had ranked Shade the world’s richest man, at two to four times more than whoever came second, for forty years running.

The cardinal sent by the Vatican steepled pudgy fingers, “Sir, speaking myself as a man of God knowledgeable of Earthly business I believe you understate Mr. Shade’s good works.”

He pronounced “Knowledegable” “No-lee-zha-bell.” He was an Italian so plump that his overstuffed red cassock bulged. He served on the Committee of Cardinals who oversaw the Vatican Bank.

He said, “I have studied the published statements of the Prometheus philanthropies myself, and it is by research possible to estimate the value of Mr. Shade’s investments, that fund these charities. I calculate that Mr. Shade gifts back to the world each year virtually every dollar he earns.”

Maybe his Eminence got inside info from his ultimate boss, because his calculation was dead close. Although we had trouble giving our earnings away fast enough. Fusion power was just the beginning. Over the decades Shade refined his ability to spot and invest in the next big thing, and to predict and avoid the next bad thing.

And the money we made then gave away had to date cured a dozen forms of cancer. We had started with pancreatic. The money also fed much of sub-Saharan Africa, and was rebuilding half of Tibet and Nepal after the 2018 quake.

The cardinal inclined his head so far that I thought his beanie would fall off. “The Holy Father himself wishes me to extend his thanks and his blessing, on behalf of all those everywhere, of all faiths, who have benefited from Mr. Shade’s generosity.”

Another reason Shade wanted to have this meeting was that his generosity may have been enough for the Holy Father, but it wasn’t enough for everybody. Today the media didn’t just call Shade a reclusive eccentric. Now he was also the Early Robin That Catches the Worm, the Nostradamus of Northwest Ohio, the Man With the Golden Gut. Everybody wanted not only his generosity but his advice, and if he spent his energy giving the latter, he couldn’t earn the profits that funded the former. People needed to understand that and leave him alone.

The network blonde squirmed in her chair. “Mr. Trueman, this is all fascinating. And all of us do feel a bit like we’ve won the golden tickets to Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory, but –”

It had been her job to reduce complexities to pop cultural references. With a twinkle in her eye that kept viewers tuned through the commercial.

I smiled at that one, myself. “But you think it’s time the tour moves on?”

I nodded, slapped my palms on my thighs, and stood. “We’ll cover other ground rules if they come up.”

Once I led them into the hallway, I pointed at the double doors at the opposite end. “Mr. Shade’s office is just down the hall.”

The network blonde pouted as her stilettos clicked on our ancient but serviceable linoleum. “What? No Wonkavator?”

Everyone chuckled. Except for me.

I made this short walk each day on heavy legs. For these five smiling representatives of mankind, the Wonkavator of giddy anticipation was about to take a cruel turn down a dark tunnel.

I paused when I reached the double doors and rested my weight on the door handles, head down, with my back to the guests. “I should tell you that Mr. Shade’s health is — has been — poor.”

The double-doored room had been MacRoy’s executive dining room, and the existing plumbing and kitchen facilities had made it a practical conversion to accommodate Shade.

I rapped my knuckles on the mahogany, then pushed the doors inward and stood aside.

All of them gasped.

I ground my teeth. I should have prepared them better. But after all the years I suppose my heart saw Shade as the man I knew, even though my eyes saw the truth every day.

The cardinal muttered and crossed himself. The network blonde stepped back, rolled an ankle, and jostled the Manco executive’s bodyguard. Six mouths hung open and twelve eyes stared.

Shade sat silhouetted against the darkened floor to ceiling windows in the center of the plain and oversized room. We had set up a semicircle of six armchairs in front of him. But mankind’s representatives weren’t looking at the room or the chairs.

I wonder often whether Shade, who had told me that his genius was simply perceiving the obvious, had perceived in 1970 that such fine motor coordination trivialities as spilling a few peanuts, and fingers and lips that trembled, signaled the onset of Amyotropic Lateral Sclerosis.

Or whether Shade was as shocked as I was when his increasing weakness finally brought the diagnosis that Lou Gehrig and Stephen Hawking and Prometheus Robin Shade had more in common than unsought fame and unrequited optimism.

The doctors say it wouldn’t have mattered if they or Shade had seen it coming, because mankind hadn’t devised a cure. When we had focused on diseases to cure first, we didn’t choose ALS because it affected fewer people than so many other diseases. It was a small irony.

The large irony was that, like his namesake Prometheus, Shade’s reward for gifting mankind with limitless fire was to be chained for eternity. Shade, unlike Prometheus, did not regrow his liver each night so that the eagle of Zeus could eat it each day.

But as I watched Shade weaken each day, and as I saw his guests’ reaction on this day as Shade the omnipotent man of mystery finally sat before them, I wondered whether the gods had been kinder to Prometheus than life had been to Prometheus Robin Shade.

Truly, Shade did not sit. He was propped.

The withered bundle of bone and tissue that remained of his body was each day wrapped by his nurse and me into a business suit, crisp white shirt, and tie.

Yes, the world’s richest man and most improbable optimist got up and went to work every day, just like you did in your electric runabout, the runabout that Shade’s perceptiveness and daring allowed you to drive for a song. The difference was that Shade’s commute was thirty feet, and his clothes were tailored. But he only let me have them tailored for him when I could no longer buy them off the rack in sizes small enough to fit him.

Then each day his nurse and I placed the bundle in the powered chair that imprisoned the body that imprisoned Shade’s mind. So that Shade’s eyes and ears could let him be part of the world that he had remade, as he read and watched a hundred and twelve closed-captioned flat screen monitors arrayed on his office wall.

Shade stared at his guests through eyes set deep in a drawn, pale face canted to one side. The chair periodically metronomed his cradled head slowly side to side, exercising atrophied neck muscles Shade could no longer control, but it was a false animation. He could twitch his cheek muscles and blink but do little else.

Shade’s eyes stared at his guests through a clear but flickering panel suspended from his chair, that was the size of a computer monitor screen, that moved with his head, and replaced his eyeglasses.

“I apologize for my appearance. I don’t get out much, for obvious reasons. Trueman, there, picks out my clothes and dresses me funny. Overpriced and understyled. But what do you expect from a lawyer who lives in Findlay, Ohio?”

I smiled.

But his guests filed into the semicircled chairs, sat and stared at him stiffly. His electronic voice didn’t disarm them any more than his attempted icebreaker, though self-deprecating jokes about overpriced lawyers and small town disfashion were usually money in the bank.

Shade manipulated his computer-created voice by twitches he made in his cheek muscles, which optical sensors atop the screen above his face matched to an electronic dictionary of familiar phrases, words, letters, numbers, and punctuation as they flickered across the screen.

If Shade’s guests found this conversation awkward, they should have been here a few years before. In those days, when Shade could no longer speak or write or type or even point or nod, I would sit in front of him holding a board on which were displayed phrases, words and symbols. I went through them with a pointer as he blinked. One blink meant “No, next,” two blinks meant “Yes, that’s it.” Composing a paragraph could take an hour. It was so exhausting for him that I pointed periodically at “I quit,” to give him an out.

But we didn’t quit. Because, in the way that a sightless person hears more acutely than a sighted one, Shade’s ability to, as he put it, perceive the obvious grew as the distractions that the rest of us suffer from our physicality shrank for him. He read, absorbed, analyzed. We invested accordingly. And from those investments we made, then gave away, so much money that the Pope sent us human valentines, like this overstuffed cardinal.

In fact, Shade had only invoked “I quit” once.

It was after an overlong point-and-blink that merely determined that Shade wanted to dump our small position in KonigsAir, a Swedish aircraft manufacturer. KonigsAir had recently rolled out a biz jet called the Drake, sort of the JetStar’s pussified great nephew. Shade had just made the point to me that he thought the Drake’s fuel system incorporated a fault that might delay certification.

I had looked at my watch. “It’s Carol the nurse’s wedding anniversary and we’re keeping her late, Shade.” I had pointed to “I quit,” and Shade blinked twice for “yes.” I sent Carol home, then put Shade to bed myself and tucked him in.

The next morning, Shade didn’t respond to anything I pointed to.

Finally, I turned away from him and stared at the silent monitors behind us.

All the networks carried stills and video of a test-flown KonigsAir Drake bursting into flame, then tumbling like a meteor onto a day care center outside Stockholm. Above the crawl were photos of twenty-three infants, each black bordered.

When I turned back to Shade, a single tear ran down his cheek. I pointed and he blinked until he had said, “I could have saved them.” Then he wouldn’t respond.

Each day for the next six Carol and I dressed him and propped him up like always but he wouldn’t respond. He tried to choke himself on what Carol fed him.

Finally, I threw the board and the pointer on the floor in front of him. “Dammit, Shade! Not even God can make the world perfect. And you’re not him. You make the world better. Settle for that.”

Then I stared out the window at Findlay, Ohio, for a half hour. When I picked the board up, I said, “I’m sorry,” then pointed at “Do you want to continue?”

He blinked twice for yes, and I never saw him cry again.

Motionless, Shade said to his guests, “I understand your discomfort at my appearance and limitations. Therefore, I’ll be brief. If the Prometheus prototype were today, in 2020, still in the Libyan sand, we would not be out of oil. We would, however, have been told decade-in and decade-out by various of the institutions all of you represent that we would be out. Not because it was true but in order to advance other agendas. Nor would the Earth have been ruined by industry, or blown to bits by nuclear weapons. Nor would it have suffered the onset of so many other terrible self-evident truths that were not true at all. But today all those awful possibilities do still remain.”

The ManCo CEO, who had previously served two terms as President of the United States, which is why she had a Secret Service bodyguard – I told you I’d get back to that – wrinkled her forehead. “But Mr. Shade, mankind has done far better than that.”

“On the contrary. My analysis is that if fusion technology had not been developed, Khaddafi’s expropriation of foreign oil interests in the 1970s would have ignited the greatest transfer of wealth in human history, from the developed nations to the Islamic nations of the Middle East. That in turn would have triggered a cycle of revolution and violence that would have shaped much of the history of the next fifty years. And that cycle would have continued until and beyond this day.”

Shade paused. We had literally worked him out for weeks before this day, so he would be physically strong enough to sustain this conversation. But the effort was still wearing him down.

His disembodied voice continued, “But, even though mankind won the cosmic lottery, we’ve done scarcely better at all. All those other problems are still with us, despite limitless clean energy that should have allowed us to solve so many of them. I am weary of working alone. My hope today in bringing us all together is that at last we begin to solve mankind’s problems cooperatively.”

The Hollywood activist pumped his fist. “Well said! Our environmental groups work selflessly to make a better world.” He waved at the other four guests, “But these entrenched institutions fight us every inch.”

The Secretary General of the United Nations rolled his eyes at that. “Selfless? You save whales only so they may look graceful alongside your yacht. You adopt babies of color like pretty pocketbooks. Then have them raised by your house darkies.”

The cardinal scolded the Secretary General with a chubby finger. “Sir, you cast stones? Your organization could be the hope of the world’s children. But you test the developed nations’ generosity scolding them. While you weep at genocide and corruption in lesser lands whose brief you nonetheless carry.”

The fake-cheeked newscaster snorted at the cardinal. “Hope? You hypocritical tub-of-lard! Organized religion manufactured hell. Then you started charging for life preservers to stay out of hell and called that hope. The only hope the world’s children get from you people is the hope that you won’t rape them like goats.”

The ex-president sniffed at the network president. “Really, Maureen! How often did my administration endure that same kind of hyperbole and crisis-of-the-week vitriol from your network? While your network’s so-called comedians mocked and scuttled every serious initiative my people or even my opponents ever floated. And you short-covered hard news,” the ex-President pointed at the Hollywood activist, “So you could run puff pieces about these phonies’ diets.”

“Phonies?” The Hollywood activist came out of his chair, fists balled, and stepped toward the ex-president.

The Secret Service Amazon came out of her corner like Rocky Balboa, with a hand inside her blazer, and the Hollywood actor plopped back into his chair.

But the actor pointed at the President-turned-CEO. “Phony? You doubled the deficit and unemployment, then claimed that was prosperity. You gutted the EPA and now you clear sixty million a year fronting for environmental rapists. You started two illegal wars and now you’re campaigning for the Nobel Peace Prize.”

I looked away from the icons of modern civilization while they argued, one insult short of a street brawl. Then I stepped over to Shade and pulled the old message board out of the pocket in his chair, so we could converse privately, if less fluently.

“Shade, I know you’re tired. I know the hopes you had for this day. But this mess is their fault, not yours.”

“Hopeless. Worthless.”

I buzzed the security guy by the elevator and he and the Secret Service amazon herded the bickering quintet out.

I closed the doors, locked them, turned to Shade. He stared at me as the chair wagged his head slowly.

I didn’t turn the voice back on and we did it the old, face-to-face way. It was more personal. One blink meant “no,” two blinks meant “yes.”

I said, “I understand. We thought oil was the root of mankind’s problems. But now we know that the only self-evident truth is that mankind is its own worst enemy. We’ve busted our asses for fifty years but the human race is still run by self-absorbed hypocrites who choose their own facts and feather their own nests. So you want to give up?”

He blinked, then blinked again. Twice for yes.

I looked down at the carpet, back up at him. “And the pain. It’s worse for you every day?”

Again he blinked, then blinked again for yes.

After the KonigsAir thing, Shade had asked me to amend his Living Will. Now a syringe was locked in a drawer in Carol’s desk for which I carried the only key. I was authorized, in fact had promised Shade, to use the syringe if he asked. In Ohio it was still manslaughter for me, but I had promised anyway because I owed him that after all we had been through together.

I took a deep breath, fingered the cold metal key in my pocket, then asked the question Shade’s will required. “Do you want to continue?”

He blinked once. My heart skipped.

My tears choked me as I whispered, “But Shade, I can’t continue trying alone. Besides, then I’ll have nobody to dress funny.”

And then he blinked the second time.


Copyright © 2015 Robert Buettner


Robert Buettner served as an Army intelligence officer. After his discharge, he continued as an Army reservist and became a geologist and then a lawyer specializing in natural resources. He is the author of the Orphan’s Legacy series. He currently lives near Atlanta, Georgia.