The following is a work of fiction. Here is the Table of Contents, which is updated as new chapters are written.
The Duke of Oil is the third in a series of sci-fi novels of the type known as alternate history. What's different is that this series takes place in our time, with characters familiar in your real life.
The first book in the series, The Chinese Century, was written late 2004. Its table of contents is here. The second, The American Diaspora, was written in 2005. The table of contents for that book is here.
A synopsis of the series is here.
We're several hours north of Cape Town, on the Atlantic coast just a few miles from the Namibia border.
It's Branson's idea, of course. He wants a larger test bed for some of his big plans. Most especially, he wants rocket fuel.
Today's modern Delta IV rockets use two propellants, which are combined through a nozzle and fired through the back end, creating thrust which propels it forward. The propellants are liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen. To get them, you need an electrolyzer to turn water into the two gases, then you need a lot of refrigeration.
Why does Branson need rocket fuel? It's part of his plan to get a real commercial hit from the SpaceShipOne technology he bought a few years ago. It flies like a plane to where the air is thin, then a rocket motor kicks it into space for a few minutes, and when it comes down the wings carry it down to an airport.
So here's the deal. You make a bigger version of the SpaceShipOne. And instead of just doing space tourism, you fire those rockets and go halfway around the world. Imagine, New York to Tokyo in just a few hours, or (and here's the secret heart of his scheme) Cape Town to Moscow in the same kind of time. A 21 hour flight in just two.
What does this have to do with Port Nolloth? Well, we're near the sea. Lots of water. We're also in a desert, meaning there's plenty of Sunlight. And we've got the latest version of Dr. Wong's solar panels. Each generation has a higher yield of tetrahedral quantum dots than the last batch and, as he explained, the more legs on each dot, and the denser the dot array, the more juice the cell can produce.
What we sold in Qunu a month ago? (Port Nolloth, I should add, makes Qunu look like New York City.) These are 10 times better. And Dr. Wong thinks he can get even more done. So each time a new generation of panels is produced in his Johannesburg laboratory, it will come out here for testing. We'll make rocket fuel with it.
Crazy, huh? With the Virgin corporate jet, Branson says, we're just two hours away from the Trade Center base. “Take a vacation,” he told Jenni and I.
Vacation. The brochure looked nice, but the little beach house on McDougall Bay turns out to be just two rooms with a window facing the beach. No broadband Internet, but there is a nice satellite dish outside so I can watch some football, and get messages back to base. Jenni has a pile of books, and once in a while we take a walk to the beach. No wading though – that water is cold!
A few miles from the beach house, behind a fence maintained by DeBeers to protect their diamond operation (they suck in the sand and filter out the good stuff) is our works. It's secure, thanks to DeBeers, it's close to the beach, and the sunshine is, as advertised, a mother. There's also plenty of land around to erect panels.
Branson is pleased. And once we get this work going right we're going right back home.
But the time drags on. One big problem is getting the fuel to market. Branson is talking about filling some balloons with gas and having me fly it into Cape Town like Phineas Fogg. DeBeers has suggested liquifying the gas into tanks and shipping them out via the new jetty they built for the diamond operation. This makes sense, but I wonder whether DeBeers can be trusted.
“Who can they tell?” Chris Gardner asks in an e-mail. “We've bragged about Wong's panels, and advertised the technology. You're not working with any secrets there. Enjoy your vacation.”
There is that V word again. I swear, when Jenni gets to the bottom of her stack of books I'm calling in the plane.