The following is part of a short story by Neal Stephenson, excerpted from Hieroglyph, edited by Ed Finn and Kathryn Cramer. Tune in to Science Friday on September 26, 2014 to hear Stephenson chat about his story.
“It’s called soil,” I told him, for the third time.
Carl didn’t even like to be told anything twice. He drew up short. “To me,” he said, “it’s all dirt.”
“Whatever you call it,” I said, “it’s got a certain ability to hold things up.”
I could tell he was about to interrupt, so I held up a hand to stifle him.
Everyone else in the room drew in a sharp breath. But none of them had known Carl since the age of five. “All I’m saying,” I said, “is that civil engineers happen to be really, really good at building things on top of dirt—” (this was me throwing him a bone) “—and so rather than begin this project—whatever the hell it is—by issuing a fatwa against dirt, maybe you should trust the engineers to find some clever way to support whatever the hell it is you want to build on top of whatever kind of soil happens to cover whatever the hell site you want me to buy.”
Carl said, “I don’t trust dirt to support a tower twenty kilometers high.”
That silenced the room. With any other client, someone might have been bold enough to raise their hand and ask if he’d really meant what he said.
Or, assuming he had, whether he was out of his mind.
No hands went up.
“Okay,” I said finally, “we’ll look for a site where bedrock is near the surface.”
“Preferably is the surface,” Carl said.
“I’m just saying that might be tricky,” I pointed out, “combined with your other requirements. What were those, again?”
“Direct access to a Great Lake,” he said. “Extra points if it has a steel mill on it.”
“What if the steel mill isn’t for sale?” someone asked.
“It will be,” I said, before Carl could.
With me and Carl was one of those relationships where we went for a quarter of a century without having any contact at all and then picked up right where we’d left off at twelve. We’d gone to the same schools and scuffled together on the same playgrounds and even advanced as far as some exploratory kissing, which, for reasons that will shortly become self-evident, hadn’t gone very well. Then the coach of the middle-school football team had refused to let me participate, save as manager or cheerleader, and my parents had yanked me out of the place and homeschooled me for a year before sending me to a private academy. This had led to college and grad school and a long dispiriting run of un- and underemployment, since the economy didn’t seem interested in comparative religion majors. I’d moved to California with a girlfriend during a window when gay marriage was legal, but broken up with her before we could tie the knot—because something about knowing you could really focused one’s attentions on what life would be like if you did—then met Tess and married her instead. Tess was making decent money as a programmer for a series of tech firms, which left me as one of those stay-at-home spouses with nothing to pass the time except yoga. Eventually, as an alternative to simply going crazy, I had gotten into the real estate business. I was good at all parts of it except dealing with silly homeowners-to-be who couldn’t make up their minds about which house they wanted to buy.
Commercial real estate had turned out to be my ticket. Those buyers knew what they wanted and I liked such people.
People like Carl.
I’d followed his career: the cover stories on the business magazines, the photos of him opening the New York Stock Exchange. I hadn’t realized that he was Carl, the kid from the playground, until he’d become a billionaire, lost most of it, and become a billionaire a second time: exhibiting a tolerance for risk that fit in perfectly with his behavioral profile during recess.
One year I’d gone home for Christmas. My mom, busy in the kitchen, had dispatched me to the grocery store to buy cranberry relish. I found myself standing next to Carl in the checkout line. He was holding a tub of sour cream and a six-pack of beer. Just me and the eleventh-richest man in America standing there waiting for Old Lady Jones (as we had known her three decades earlier) to finish coupon sorting. Carl and I had strolled across the parking lot to the Applebee’s and spent a while catching up. I told him about my marriage. Carl just nodded as if to say, yeah, that would be you. This created an immediate and probably stupid feeling of gratitude and loyalty that saw me through a lot of the crazy stuff that happened later.
Then some internal timer seemed to go off in his head. Maybe he sensed that the sour cream and the beer were both getting warm, or maybe that’s just how guys like Carl are hooked up. He turned into a grown-up again. Asked me what I did for a living. Asked me a lot of questions about it, then interrupted my answers when they reached the point of diminishing returns. Requested my business card.
A week later I was back in the Bay Area. Finding Carl a hangar to store his collection of restored World War I biplanes. After that it was helping one of his companies move to a new facility in Redwood Shores. Then finding an office building for his microfinancing venture.
And it was always easy between us. Even when he was impatient or downright pissed off about something, it was always Emma and Carl, twelve years old again. Even—no, especially—when he came to me with a very twelve-year-old look on his face and said, “I’ve got a weird one for you.”
Excerpt from “Atmosphæra Incongnita” by Neal Stephenson, copyright © 2103 by Neal Stephenson, from Hieroglyph: Stories and Visions For a Better Future
, edited by Ed Finn and Kathryn Cramer, copyright © 2014 by Arizona State University. Published by William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Courtesy of the publisher.
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