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Authors: Ben Bova

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BOOK: The Green Trap
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With that, she opened the car door and got out. Cochrane sat there for all of ten seconds, then got out of the car and trotted after her to the smoked-glass double doors of the Calvin Research Center's entrance. She's like a snake charmer, he said to himself. And I'm the goddamned snake.

The center's director was Jason Tulius, a burly, barrel-chested man with thick white hair and a full white beard fringing his face. His light gray eyes seemed guarded, almost suspicious. Give him an eye patch and he'd look just like an old-time pirate, Cochrane thought. Then he corrected himself: No, he looks more like a tired-out, unhappy Santa Claus.

“It's a terrible tragedy,” he said after shaking hands with Sandoval and Cochrane. “A terrible tragedy.”

Tulius wore a brown tweed jacket over an open-collared pale green shirt. His top-floor office was spacious and airy, with broad windows giving a sweeping view of the hills on the far side of the highway. Instead of sitting at his desk, Tulius directed his visitors to the round table in the far corner of the office. His executive assistant carried in a tray bearing a stainless steel coffee urn, three mugs decorated with the CRC logo, and a plate of muffins.

“My one vice,” Tulius said, reaching for the mug as the young man who'd brought it in silently left the room. Then he eyed Sandoval and smiled. “Well, one of my two vices.”

She smiled back at him as he poured steaming coffee into one of the mugs. He offered coffee to her and Cochrane; both shook their heads.

Cochrane got them down to business. “Ms. Sandoval thinks that Mike was murdered because of the research he was undertaking. Others apparently do, as well.”

Tulius's shaggy brows hiked up. “His research? He was working on photosynthesis, just like most of my staff.”

“He called me a couple of days before he died,” Cochrane said. “He told me that what he was doing will bring him millions. Tens of millions.”

With a patient sigh, Tulius replied, “Michael was always a… an enthusiast. He was always overly optimistic about his work. Two years ago he started tinkering with genetic engineering, trying to modify certain strains of bacteria to produce a form of oil that could be used as fuel.”

“Didn't Calvin himself work in that area?” Sandoval asked, surprising Cochrane.

“Yes, he did.” Tulius nodded vigorously. “But he never succeeded. Neither did Michael, despite his enthusiasm. After eighteen months with no positive results, I had to order him to give it up.”

“What could he have been doing that might be worth tens of millions?” Sandoval asked.

Tulius took a long sip of coffee from his steaming mug. “I can't imagine,” he said. “I simply cannot imagine.”

“There must be something,” she insisted.

Mike's death is really connected with his work,” Cochrane muttered, thinking of Irene and her two buffalo-sized brothers.

“It is,” Sandoval said flatly.

“His widow thinks he was having an affair, possibly with someone working here.”

“No!” Tulius snapped, looking almost angry at the very idea.

“How can you be sure?” asked Cochrane.

Shaking his head, Tulius said, “This is a small organization, Mr. Cochrane. Slightly less than two hundred people. We're a pretty tight-knit group, almost like a family. When a couple of my people start fooling around, I hear about it.”

“Do you? Every time?”

“They can't keep that kind of thing a secret for very long,” Tulius replied.

“And you didn't hear anything about Mike?”

“Never. Oh, he might have had a fling or two, but not with anyone here at the lab. I'm certain of that.”

Cochrane tried to see from Tulius's bearded face whether he was telling the truth or not, but gave it up. He didn't know the man well enough to read his expression.

Sandoval said, “So you think that his murder was connected with the research he was doing.”

Spreading his hands in a gesture of helplessness, Tulius answered, “I suppose that must be it, although I can't for the life of me see what Michael was doing that would lead someone to kill him.”

“Could he have been working on something on his own, without your knowing it?”

“Moonlighting?” Tulius thought about it for all of a second. “I doubt that, doubt it very much.”

“So just what was he working on?” Cochrane asked.

Tulius took another sip of his coffee, then asked, “Would you like to see what he was doing?”

“Yes!” Sandoval answered before Cochrane could get a word out of his mouth.

Tulius went to his desk and picked up the phone. In a few minutes a rangy, bearded, wary-eyed man showed up at the office door. Do they all wear beards? Cochrane asked himself. No, he answered silently. Mike didn't. None of the Calvin people who showed up at the funeral did. Neither Tulius nor this new guy had been among the mourners.

“This is Dr. Kurtzman,” said Tulius.

“Ray Kurtzman,” he said, extending his hand to Cochrane. “Sorry about your brother.”

Cochrane expected him to take them back to one of the laboratories, or perhaps to Mike's office. Instead, Kurtzman led Sandoval and himself up a flight of uncarpeted steel stairs toward the building's roof.

“Most of us work with laboratory specimens,” he said as they climbed the stairs. “Me, I'm a theoretician. I work with computer models and statistics.”

“And Mike?”

Kurtzman opened the door that led out onto the roof. “Your brother was an experimentalist. A tinkerer.”

Cochrane had to squint in the sunlight. He started to take off his suit jacket, but realized that a cooling breeze was whipping in from the ocean, on the other side of the hills. The sky was bright blue, dotted with puffy white clumps of cumulus. A band of pearl-gray cloud was edging over the range of seaside hills, like a huge shapeless amoeba slithering over their crests.

“A tinkerer?” Sandoval asked, raising her voice above the gusting breeze.

Kurtzman led them to a flimsy-looking structure of slim metal slats and glass windows. A greenhouse, Cochrane saw.

“Mike called this his Archaean Gardens,” Kurtzman said, as he opened the glass door. It wasn't locked, Cochrane noticed.

The greenhouse was filled with long straight rows of tables bearing shallow pans of water. Cochrane saw small rocks and pebbles strewn in the pans, seemingly haphazardly. Most of them were covered with some sort of slime. The water gurgled cheerfully through the pans and out to a drainpipe.

“Archaean Gardens?” he asked.

Kurtzman came close to smiling. “He, uh… borrowed the idea from some work the NASA people over at Ames were doing.” Pointing at the slime-covered stones, he explained, “These are stromatolites. Very ancient
form of life. Probably first came into existence three or four billion years ago.”

Sandoval asked, “How did he make them if they've been dead for so long?”

“They're not extinct,” Kurtzman replied. “They still exist, off in places like Australia and east Africa. Mike got some samples and decided to try breeding them here under controlled conditions.”

Cochrane pointed at the thin mats of living creatures. “Are they single-celled?”

“Algae and cyanobacteria,” Kurtzman said, nodding. “Mike wangled a NASA contract from Ames, up the road; they're interested in the origins of life on earth. Helps them focus their explorations of Mars and other worlds, looking for life there.”

“But what did he
with these creatures?” Sandoval asked.

Kurtzman grinned at her. “Good question. Mike was altering the amount of water that flowed over them, varying the nutrients in the water, trying to learn how changes in their environment affected them.”

“What was he measuring?” Cochrane asked.

“Oxygen output. These little critters take in water and carbon dioxide and give off oxygen. That's how the oxygen we breathe got into the atmosphere.”

Sandoval seemed fascinated. “How do they do that?”

“They crack water molecules, split 'em into hydrogen and oxygen. Not an easy thing to do, but they've been doing it for more than three billion years.”

“They use the hydrogen and carbon to make carbohydrate food for themselves,” Cochrane said, remembering his high school biology class, “and release the oxygen into the air. Oxygen is waste matter for them.”

“Yeah,” said Kurtzman. “They changed the whole world. Oxygen's pretty deadly stuff for the life-forms that existed way back then. These little blue-green buggers wiped them out, mostly. Oxygen killed them off.”

Cochrane stared at the stromatolites, going about their business of life as they had been for almost four billion years. The only sound in the greenhouse was the gurgling of the water washing over the rounded pebbles and slightly larger rocks. It was hot inside the glass walls. Cochrane took off his jacket, pulled his tie loose.

And asked himself, Mike got himself killed over these microbes? There's got to be more to it than this.

Greenhouse Gases Cause
Rising Global Temperature

Global temperatures are rising. Measurements around the world show that the thermometer's going up. There was some doubt about this because thermometer readings at the surface showed consistently rising temperatures while satellite measurements of the upper atmosphere showed a slight cooling trend.

Research published recently has resolved the question. The satellite measurements were in error. The atmosphere is getting warmer. No doubt of it.

This has happened before. Global climate has shifted many times in the past, often within a matter of a few decades or less. We've had ice ages and climates that were tropical from pole to pole.

Today global climate is definitely warming. Spring is arriving in northern latitudes earlier than ever. Permafrost in Canada is melting. Ice shelves in Antarctica are collapsing. Migratory animals are moving northward earlier in the year. Certain plant species are moving northward, too, because it's warm enough for them to thrive where they would have frozen before.

Are human actions causing this warming? That can't be pinned down definitely. Global climate shifts involve enormous energies, and can be caused by many factors, even including slight shifts in the earth's orbit around the sun.

But the amount of greenhouse gases that human industries and motorized transport pours into the atmosphere is at least a part of the problem. Perhaps a
major part. Carbon dioxide and methane from human smokestacks, chimneys and exhaust pipes certainly aren't making the climate cooler!

Trouble is, some people are convinced that they know the truth about global warming, and they won't listen to anything that counters their firmly held belief.

There are those who insist that global warming is a myth, a Big Lie invented by environmentalists and nefarious foreigners who want to blame it all on us rich Americans. On the other hand, there are those who believe that we're all going to drown in rising sea levels unless we stop burning fossil fuels and somehow instantaneously invent a pollution-free economy.

Global climate is warming. Human actions are part of the problem. Bigger and more frequent hurricanes are one of the more obvious results of this climate shift.

It seems prudent to do whatever we can to alleviate the problem. Shift away from fossil fuels. Use nuclear energy, hydrogen fuels, solar and wind power as much as feasible.

And move to higher ground.


October 23, 2005


his special meeting of the board of directors was held in the Beekman Suite, quietly and discreetly, where neither the news media nor pesty protestors could interfere. The long conference table was filled, except for one empty chair at its very end. On the table set up along the back wall of the conference room were arrayed trays of finger foods and an assortment of refreshments that ranged from triply distilled water to the finest Polish potato vodka.

Lionel Gould sat at the head of the conference table, of course, the third generation of Goulds to hold such power. As chairman of the board of directors and principal stockholder in the corporation, Gould could break the careers of CEOs with a snap of his fingers. He was a benign-looking man of fifty-eight, portly, his graying hair thinning, his slightly porcine face set in a kindly little smile. His light brown eyes were flecked with gold, and as cold as ice. The jacket of his impeccably tailored three-piece suit hung crookedly on the back of his chair; his maroon silk tie was
pulled loose beneath his double chin. Even though the conference room was thoroughly air-conditioned, Gould was obviously perspiring.

In the past decade Gould had survived a massive heart attack, a triple cardiac bypass operation, and a hip replacement procedure. He had divorced two wives during that time and fired two CEOs. Currently unmarried, he was careless of his appearance and his physical condition. He had learned early in his teens that enormous wealth meant more to women than mere good looks or a trim athletic body.

Now he tapped the polished conference tabletop with a single manicured finger. The murmured conversations among the directors stopped like an electric light being clicked off. Each of them—eleven men and eight women—turned their faces toward him.

“Let's get started,” Gould said. His voice was a deep rumbling basso. Once he had toyed with the idea of becoming an opera star, but although he had the physique and the talent (so he was told) he found that the daily grinding work of practicing was not for him.

He nodded to the board secretary, seated at his left, who read a three-paragraph summary of the previous meeting's minutes. Up and down the table, directors opened laptops or PDAs or leather-bound notebooks.

The treasurer assured the assembled directors that Gould Energy Corporation had exceeded its goals in sales, pretax earnings, and net profits over the past quarter. The directors smiled and nodded.

BOOK: The Green Trap
3.68Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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