Princeton-on-Sea, California


The two men were of a kind.

They strode side by side across the deck of the deserted seaside restaurant.

They were Silicon Valley royalty, and it showed.

They wore designer long-sleeved shirts, khaki slacks, Swiss watches, and Italian loafers. Their pockets jingled with the keys of cars worth as much as a house in some parts of the country. They clutched leather-bound laptop cases in pale, well-manicured hands.

There the resemblance ended.

One was tall, angular, weathered, and lean, with narrow cheekbones and a shoulder-length mane of dark brown hair. His thin lips bore a sardonic smile. Crow's feet stretched away from the corners of his pale gray eyes as he squinted into the mid-afternoon sun.

His companion was taller, older, heavier, and angrier. His face was smooth but spotted with age. His brown hair was well-groomed but oddly immobile in the hot summer breeze. His mouth was bowed into a perpetual frown.

Men like them believed their destiny was to change the world—if not for the better, at least to leave their mark. Few would ever do so, unless one counted selling more ads among the great achievements of history.

These two would succeed, but not as they intended.

If they had known that their meeting would lead to war, they might have turned and fled before exchanging a single word.

Then again, they might not.

Even if they’d known that by taking this meeting, in a few months one of them would be dead, the other running for his life, and the very survival of humankind in doubt, they might have taken it anyway. They were nothing if not arrogant. They'd have believed themselves more than capable of forestalling any unfortunate events.

The potential reward was just too great.

Alas, the restaurant was empty. No one was there to warn them off. And if there were any gods, they had given up teaching humanity of the perils of hubris long, long ago.

* * *

The restaurant sat atop a long, low hillside overlooking the placid surface of Pillar Point Harbor, separated from Half Moon Bay by a pair of curved, rocky breakwaters. Beyond was the Pacific Ocean, sweltering under a cloudless blue sky.

The waves were listless, hammered flat by a merciless sun. It was hard to believe that the Mavericks surfing competition was held here in what Northern Californians laughingly called “winter.” Today the sea was as calm as a kiddie pool.

Peter Struve tried to ignore the hostile eyes of his companion as he crossed the restaurant’s deck. The mid-afternoon sun glared at him as well. He shielded his face with his free hand.

A table and a trio of chairs awaited the two of them at the far corner of the deck.

Peter picked a chair and sat. He placed his laptop bag on the table, plucked a pair of aviator sunglasses from his dress shirt pocket, shook them open and put them on.

Philip Mayhew remained standing. He was a big man, powerfully built and imposing even after six decades spent mostly inside corporate board rooms. He swept a hand toward the expanse of empty tables. “You had to rent the whole place? You couldn’t just come to my office? Those surfers waiting out front are ready to lynch us.”

Peter smiled up at him. “The sunlight will do you good. You look a little pasty.” The low glass walls around the deck blocked the occasional hint of a breeze. He began to sweat.

Mayhew stared down at Peter for another few seconds before lowering himself into a chair. He kept his own bag in his lap. “If we weren’t in a public place I would punch you in the mouth.” 

Peter knew Mayhew could make good on that half-serious threat. The hair beneath his expensive toupee was still brown. The long sleeves of his blinding white Stefano Ricci shirt didn’t hide the muscles inside those age-thickened arms.

Without missing a beat, Peter shrugged. “Another good reason to meet here instead. Besides, I wanted to make an impression.”

Mayhew hissed, “You’re into my fund for six hundred million dollars. You’ve already made a goddamned impression.”

A waitress strode up to their table, her eyes on Mayhew. “Mr. Struve? I’m Lacey. I’ll be taking care of you today.”

Peter cleared his throat. “Call me Peter.”

“I’m sorry, Mister Str— I mean, Peter. Can I get you anything while you look at the menu?”

“Do you want some chowder, Phil? This place is famous for it.”

Mayhew snapped, “It’s Philip.”

Peter said, “I don’t think we’ll be eating today, Lacey. Just bring us each an iced tea, and also an empty glass.”

“Yes, sir.”

He winked an acknowledgement.

When she was gone, Mayhew leaned forward and growled, “I’m just about done with these bullshit-the-investor meetings, Peter. Three years since we bought in and you still don’t have anything to show me. Six hundred million. Alice Guest at Sequoia told me that you’re into them for another four. Who else have you ripped off?”

“Sealock Capital, AMT and Gideon Hart, for starters. But ripped off is a pretty harsh term. They invested. So did you. Sometimes investments pay off. Sometimes they don’t. You’re not a child. You know the drill.”

Mayhew sat back in his chair, gaping at him. After a long, silent moment, he said, “You are not going to sit there and tell me you pissed all my money down the fucking drain.”

Peter tsked. “Language, Phil. You should relax. You don’t want to have a heart attack. Sorry—another heart attack.”

Mayhew’s mouth tightened. “It’s Philip. Don’t crack wise with me, goddammit. I took a big chance on you. We all did. If you leave us hanging, you won’t own StruvePharma anymore. We will. And we’ll bury you so deep a geologist couldn’t find you.”

They both fell silent as the waitress returned with their glasses, two full and one empty. She placed them on the table. “Will there be anything else?”

“I’ll wave when I want you to come back.”

“Yes, sir.”

Peter admired the sway of Lacey’s hips as she walked away, but when she entered the building he forgot about her. He lifted his glass of tea to his lips. He surveyed the surroundings as he took a long swallow.

He’d visited the place yesterday to scout the sight lines. There was no clear view of their table from inside the building, nor from the paved walkway just below the edge of the deck. As directed, the restaurant staff had set up a tent-like pavilion along the side of the deck next to the parking lot, hiding their table from view.

The afternoon heat had driven almost everyone indoors. The nearby waters of the lagoon were free of boats. There weren’t even any fishing vessels out on Half Moon Bay proper. The only people in sight were hundreds of yards away: a gaggle of wet-suited idiots sitting on their boards in the lethargic surf, waiting vainly for a Mavericks-sized wave to roll in. Even the marine fog layer that usually hugged the coast in summertime had been driven away by the hot land breeze.

Most importantly, there was bright sunlight and humid sea air—both crucial requirements for the demo.

It was time.

Peter put the tea glass down, unzipped his laptop case and pulled out a small glassy slab the shape and size of a narrow paperback book. He placed it on the table between them.

“O ye of little faith,” he said. A trickle of sweat rolled unpleasantly down his back. He shaped his mouth into what he hoped looked like a smile.

Mayhew mopped his forehead with a napkin. He leaned forward and peered at the slab, frowning. “A piece of glass?”

“A proof of concept.” Peter pointed at the slab’s face, which featured the white outline of a rounded square about an inch on a side. The letters “ON/OFF” were embossed in the center of the square. “Set this on top of the glass, face up, and turn it on.”

Mayhew picked up the slab. “It’s heavy,” he grunted. His frown vanished and his brows furrowed. “What’s this made of?”

Peter said nothing. An airplane on approach to the nearby Half Moon Bay Airport buzzed low overhead. He fought the urge to look up.

A ghost of Mayhew’s familiar frown returned. He placed the slab across the top of the empty glass and tapped the square button.

The slab’s face turned black—a black so perfect it might have been a window into empty space. The sides and bottom stayed transparent, as did as the area inside the button.

A pattern of fine golden lines appeared inside the glassy block. An elegant lacework of amber-hued whorls, loops, spirals and branches darkened slowly into visibility, filling the entire volume of the device. The lines converged to a spot on the bottom, centered beneath the transparent button.

Mayhew drew in a breath. He pushed his chair back from the table and lowered his head until his eyes were level with the slab.

Peter took another sip of his iced tea.

A bead of thick golden liquid slowly formed on the bottom surface of the device.

Peter remained silent until he saw it fall into the glass. “It takes a minute to get going,” he stalled. Not as fast as I expected. I’ll have a word with Emily about that.

As if on cue, another droplet splashed down, followed by another and then another. Soon there was a steady patter of droplets splashing into a puddle of viscous amber fluid at the bottom of the glass. 

Peter suppressed a sigh of relief. There we go. Even better than in the lab. Choosing this spot for the demo had been the right choice.

“Jesus Christ,” whispered Mayhew, staring at the device. “Is this for real? Is… is that what I think it is?”

Peter nodded, smiling. “You should get it to your lab so you can verify it. It will work for forty-eight hours, starting now.”

“Two days? That’s not long enough!”

“Don’t let your wizards try to take it apart. There are safeguards against tampering. We wouldn’t want anyone to get hurt.”

“Hurt?” Mayhew blurted, looking up at him.

Extremely hurt.” Peter drained his glass of iced tea, picked up his now-empty laptop bag and stood. “Speaking of which, turn it off before you pick it up. If you touch the black surface, you’ll lose some skin. If it doesn’t come back to us intact, my next call will be to your blabbermouth friend Alice at Sequoia. Maybe she’ll be interested in footing the bill for Phase Two instead of you.”

“Wait a minute. We need to talk!”

Peter felt his smile broaden. “Oh, we will. In forty-eight hours.” As he passed the waitress on his way out of the restaurant, he pulled ten crisp hundred-dollar bills from his pocket and handed them to her. “Here’s your tip. Don’t let anyone else in until Mr. Mayhew leaves. And Lacey? Get him some of that clam chowder.”

Peter shrugged off her enthusiastic gratitude and threaded his way through the grumbling crowd outside the restaurant. He got into his white Tesla and sprayed gravel as he launched his car onto southbound Highway 1.

The road in front of him was empty. For a blissful instant, there weren’t even any surfers trying to walk across the road to get to the beach. He floored the accelerator. The car did its best to push him through the back of his seat.

His pasted-on smile vanished as the restaurant disappeared behind him. He gripped the steering wheel to keep his hands from shaking. He drew in a long, gulping, shuddering breath.

“Here we go,” he whispered.