When itinerant cave diver James Tighe receives an invitation to billionaire Nathan Joyce's private island, he thinks it must be a mistake. But Tighe's unique skill set makes him a prime candidate for Joyce's high-risk venture to mine a near-earth asteroidwith the goal of kick-starting an entire off-world economy. The potential rewards and personal risks are staggering, but the competition is fierce and the stakes couldn't be higher.
Isolated and pushed beyond their breaking points, Tighe and his fellow twenty-first century adventurersex-soldiers, former astronauts, BASE jumpers, and mountain climbersmust rely on each other to survive not only the dangers of a multi-year expedition but the harsh realities of business in space. They're determined to transform humanity from an Earth-bound species to a space-faring oneor die trying.
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James Tighe exploded from the surface of a cave pool and gasped for air as he yanked off his rebreather mask. For several moments he alternated between coughs and deep breaths while his helmet-mounted LED lights illuminated the silted water around him.
Beyond this island of light lay endless darkness.
As the confusion and hammering heartbeat of his hypoxia receded, daggers of decompression sickness stabbed into Tighe’s joints.
But the pain kept him conscious.
He’d been forced to shortcut several decompression stops from lack of air and waited several moments until it became clear he was going to survive. Still wincing from joint pain, he finally looked up to examine his surroundings.
The helmet lights shined on a sheer brown limestone wall a few meters ahead. Behind, he heard distant, echoing shouts—then screams. Tighe turned to illuminate a rocky shoreline 10 meters away. It looked different from when he’d departed eight hours earlier. Clouds of dust lingered in the air, and newly fragmented limestone boulders the size of houses were strewn across the upward-sloping cavern floor beyond.
The sheer scale of the Gebiya Chamber was difficult to grasp. Nearly a kilometer long, its arched ceiling was lost in darkness 200 meters overhead. If it weren’t for the lack of starlight, Tighe could almost convince himself he was outside, instead of deep underground in one of the largest limestone caverns in the world.
On the distant upslope he spotted several tiny lights gathered roughly where Camp 3 had been.
The terrain had changed. Another, brighter light suddenly appeared, closer at hand, as it scrambled over boulders, heading toward him.
Tighe shouted. “Chris!” His voice echoed. “Chris, are you here?”
The bobbing light answered, “Here, J.T.!”
Tighe finned toward the shore. As he crawled through the shallows, Danish cave diver Christen Lykke waded in and extended a gloved hand to help Tighe up onto the rocky ledge. They both wore dry suits and rebreather packs. Tighe could see the stone bank was wet for several meters upslope. Waves had evidently lashed the shoreline. He removed his fins and stood in his dive boots. “How bad is it?”
Lykke looked stricken. “The camp’s buried. Sam is trapped, and four others missing. The aftershocks keep coming.”
Another agonized scream sounded in the distance.
“I don’t think Sam’s going to make it. Most of our medical supplies were lost.” Lykke stared at the water. “Where is Richard?”
Tighe turned to face the pool as well. He struggled to keep his composure. “Richard’s gone.”
Lykke knelt and ran his hands through his hair, grappling with his own emotions. “I tried to reach you.” He looked up. “My reserve bottles were buried, J.T. I couldn’t descend—”
Tighe gripped Lykke’s shoulder and knelt beside him. “There was nothing you could have done, Chris. Nothing.” Tighe turned toward the sound of distant screams. “Let’s focus on helping the others.”
Lykke nodded grimly.
Tighe moved upslope in the boulder field. “Where’s Yuen?”
Lykke followed. “Searching for survivors.”
A moment later, Tighe rounded a massive boulder to find Chang Fu Yuen, the expedition leader, clawing at rock fragments. Chang’s muddy orange caving suit and white helmet were spattered with blood. He looked up at Tighe. “Help me with this!”
Tighe and Lykke started removing stones. Tighe asked, “Who are we digging for?”
“Pell and Nakamura. They were filming somewhere down here.”
“Have you heard them?”
Chang shook his head.
Tighe examined the rock field. “If they’re under this, they’re probably dead, Yu.”
“They could be in a gap.”
“Are you certain you saw them here?”
Chang stopped, then looked around, apparently unsure. The area of the collapse was vast. As they stood there, occasional rocks fell from the darkness above and tumbled downhill.
“Have you made contact with the surface yet?”
Chang shook his head again. “The phone line is cut.”
“We need to reestablish communications with base camp. How many survivors are there at Camp 3?”
Chang was pacing around, examining the now-unfamiliar ground. “Pell was standing right—”
Tighe gripped Chang by the shoulders. “How many survivors do we have at Camp 3?”
Lykke answered for him. “Six. Seven with Sam.”
“There’s too much rockfall here.” Tighe turned toward the distant lights. “We need to evacuate the rest of the expedition back to Camp 2. The phone link to the surface might still be intact there.”
Chang said, “We can’t leave. Cobbett is trapped.”
Lykke said blankly, “He will not survive.”
Chang glared. “You are not a doctor, Christen.”
“Half his body is crushed. You don’t have to be a doctor to—”
Tighe stepped between them but spoke to Chang. “You and I can stay with Sam. Everyone else should retreat.”
Chang started clawing at the rocks again. “We stay together.”
“Look around you.” Tighe stared up into the darkness. “These karst chambers are inherently unstable. If this ceiling comes down the entire team will be buried.”
Suddenly a rumbling sound deeper than he could hear reverberated in Tighe’s chest.
Lykke dropped to his knees and pressed against the face of the nearby boulder. “Aftershock!”
Distant screams echoed as Chang and Tighe took cover alongside Lykke. Suddenly the solid rock all around Tighe began to undulate and shift violently, cracking as it did so. A nearby boom stunned Tighe, and the stone floor tossed him a meter in the air. He landed hard as dozens of boulders and rocks hurtled over and past his headlamps, bounding down into the cave pool, where they impacted the sloshing water, hurling 10-ton waves against the far wall.
The tremor dwindled and finally stopped. Huge rocks continued to rain down for several moments afterward, the earsplitting boom of their impacts followed by scores of secondary impacts.
Tighe got to his feet and grabbed Chang, pulling him upslope. “You need to order the others to safety.”
Chang looked back to where Pell and Nakamura had disappeared. “They’re gone! Help the survivors.”
The sound of rushing water rose within the massive chamber, echoing against distant walls. All three of them halted, listening. The sound suddenly swelled to a roar emanating from the upper end of the chamber.
Lykke staggered back, a look of horror on his face. “The river.” Tighe said, “It’s changed course.”
Chang shouted over the increasing roar of water. “We cannot head back now!”
“But we can’t stay either!”
Lykke looked to them both. “What do we do?”
Tighe continued toward the lights. “We free Sam, take what supplies we can, and then we climb.”
Chang grabbed Tighe’s shoulder. “Climb where?”
Tighe pointed up. “There are half a dozen unexplored passages in the ceiling—tributaries of the original riverbed. One of them could lead us back toward the entrance.”
“If we do that, the rescue party will not know where to search for us.”
“No one can mount a rescue under these conditions. We need to rescue ourselves.” Tighe switched off his headlamps. “Conserve batteries. Every other person goes dark. We’ll need every minute of light to find a new route back.”
“Lead us, Yu.”
After a moment Chang nodded and moved toward the lights. “Follow me.”
One Month Later-November 6, 2032
James Tighe moved through a crowd of well-dressed party guests, following a path lit by tiki torches. Uniformed servants patrolled with trays of crab and caviar on brioche or pickled oysters with cucumber.
Attractive people stood chatting all around him, drinks in hand, laughing. Tighe was older by a decade at least. Across the cove more people danced to algorave music beneath a moonlit Caribbean sky someone thought was improved by laser lights. The acrid aroma of sativa wafted past. Black dresses with spaghetti straps; tailored jackets with dress shirts; handmade chronometers on every man's wrist. Tighe felt like an alien.
Snatches of conversations came to him as he passed.
"How on Earth do they make it?"
"Founded a blockchain nonprofit."
"What's their exit plan?"
A beautiful young woman exhaled from a jeweled vape pen and eyed him as he walked past.
Tighe's good looks had always eased his way. Blessed with a gymnast's physique and boyish charm, he'd been able to avoid the more serious consequences of his bad life choices. And tonight, clothed in a bespoke jacket, slacks, and dress shirt, he projected an image of casual wealth.
Which was a lie, of course.
Thirty-seven years old, and Tighe didn't own a respectable outfit. This one had been tailored for him on his arrival to the island. The jacket draped perfectly off his shoulders. The shirt fabric was soft as liquid.
In this disguise Tighe surveyed the social terrain. Several hundred guests of various ethnicities, with straight white teeth, clear complexions, and the laid-back stance of people whose futures were assured.
They seemed to accept him as one of their own. Other guests nodded in recognition as he passed.
A man tapped his arm. "Are you James Teeg?"
Tighe nodded. "It's pronounced 'Tie.' Call me J.T."
Another man shook his hand. "J.T.! Brilliant, mate!"
A pat on the back. "Well done, Yank."
A Gen Alpha woman in a formfitting minidress shouted, "Oh! My! God!" She produced a phone quicker than a gunslinger. In moments she was doing a duck face next to him as her phone flashed a selfie. Smile gone for a quick inspection. "One more." An instant laugh and this time a raised eyebrow and quizzical smile next to his nonplussed face. Flash. "Got it." She walked off without another word, head down and thumbing her screen.
Tighe recalled the Kayapo tribesmen of Brazil. They hated to be photographed. He felt a sudden kinship with them as he feared for his social media soul-then remembered he didn't have one.
Somebody pressed a cold Red Stripe into Tighe's hand. "Cheers, mate!"
Nearby guests all raised their glasses and beer bottles. One of them was an actor Tighe recognized from American television. The path ahead was filled with fashion models, entrepreneurs, artists, and pundits. And here Tighe was among them, soaking up his fifteen minutes of Internet fame. Brought in from the edge, he felt more like an outsider than ever before.
Just then a hissing sound rose, drowning out the dance music. A shout went up from the crowd. Fingers pointed skyward. The hiss soon resolved into a whoosh of jet motors.
Tighe followed the collective gaze upward to see a lone figure on high, backlit by whirling laser lights-a rider on a jet board carving through the night sky. The noise grew deafening as the pilot controlled the craft like a surfer, banking and arcing above the center of the party. Jet wash tangled palm fronds and kicked up skirts as the audience roared approval. The helmeted rider in a white jumpsuit passed above them, arms held up in triumph, urging their applause-his outfit emblazoned with a stylized logo of the name "Joyce" down its entire length.
The crowd went mad, cheering as the rider sailed off northward, the jet roar receding toward the Great House on the far side of the island. The algorave dance music returned along with excited chatter.
A woman nearby: "Holy shit! Was that really Nathan?"
"Look . . ." A man held up his phone to show proof of what they'd all just seen.
Nathan Joyce. Their billionaire host.
Tighe felt relieved to no longer be a focus of attention. Instead people around him breathlessly recounted what had just happened-playing phone video to one another of Joyce's overflight.
"Send me that!"
"I'm uploading it."
Why am I here? That was the question that kept repeating in Tighe's head. Nathan Joyce's invitation hadn't said much.
Tighe turned to see a dignified Filipino man in a white jacket and black tie-who had pronounced his last name correctly. Tighe nodded.
"Mr. Joyce has just arrived from Mustique, sir, and wishes a word with you in private, if it's convenient."
Convenient? That was funny. Tighe had been flown halfway around the world to be here. Convenience had nothing to do with it. "Sure."
"Follow me, please."
Tighe put his beer down and fell in behind the butler as they made their way through the party crowd. Before long the two of them boarded a waiting autonomous golf cart that promptly whirred down the island's main path-headed toward the Great House half a mile away.
All Tighe knew about Nathan Joyce was what the Internet told him-lots of manicured fluff pieces rising to the top of the SEO stack with the actual news buried sixteen pages deep. Admired and despised in equal measure, often by the same people, Joyce preached the gospel of risk-and his faith was ascendant worldwide.
Joyce had risen from middle-class obscurity to become a billionaire at a young age, first in cryptocurrencies and then when one after another of his tech startups (none of which Tighe had heard of or understood) were bought out by tech giants.
Now in his late thirties, Joyce had controlling interests in dozens of closely held enterprises in new media, real estate, biotech, aerospace, and renewable energy. He often made headlines by announcing grandiose, impractical business schemes. It was hard to pin down Joyce's net worth, but estimates ranged from a few into the tens of billions of dollars.
Baliceaux Island shed some light on Joyce's modus operandi. For centuries this place had been an undeveloped 320-acre speck in the Grenadines. Its rugged topography made development too costly for resorts and vacation buyers, but Joyce saw what others did not: the elevation necessary to cope with the rising seas of climate change.
Now with beachfront celebrity mansions up in the Exumas routinely flooding, Baliceaux had gone on to become one of the most valuable private residences on Earth. Even if the sea rose 5 meters, the party would still go on here.
The autonomous golf cart rolled to a stop beneath a grass-roof portico at the entrance to the Great House.
The Filipino butler dismounted. "This way, please."
He led Tighe through a carven wood doorway, past dour, suited security men. The dcor was rustic tropical, the rooms chilled and dehumidified into a climate approximating summer in Norway. It was surprisingly serene inside, given the enormous open-air discothéque not far off.
After guiding Tighe down the main hallway, the butler opened twin doors and ushered him into a sprawling, well-appointed study filled with mementos and antiques from around the world-scrimshaw, sextants, a large brass telescope on a pedestal, models of sailing ships, racing aircraft, rockets, framed ancient maps, and shelf after shelf of books.
It would have been a soothing refuge, except for the presence of a 120-inch, 8K flat-screen television on the wall above the fireplace-on which Tighe's dirt-smeared face appeared in crystal-clear video, larger than life, filmed in POV from someone else's helmet-cam.
A lone figure sat on the sofa watching the video. Even from behind, Tighe recognized the tousled brown hair and broad shoulders of Nathan Joyce, still wearing his white flight suit.
The study doors closed behind Tighe.
On-screen Tighe shouted into the camera, "We can't stay here!" The bass rumble of cracking rock shook the study with the aid of impressive speakers.
A man shouted off camera. The helmet-cam turned to look-revealing a caver in an orange trog suit and light-bedecked helmet, clinging to a rock wall as it broke apart around him. A rope trailed from the man's harness back along the rock face.
A voice. "Let go, John! The roof is collapsing! Let go!"
Nearby, Tighe unclipped his own rope line and then without hesitation leaped across the gap, over darkness, and grabbed the other caver-pulling him roughly from the rock face, even though the man didn't want to let go. Moments after they swung back on the rope line, the entire cliff face and a large section of the ceiling fell away with a deafening roar. The camera captured Tighe and the caver clinging to each other, a human pendulum swinging over the void.
Tighe clipped in to the caver's harness and then looked up at the camera. "Bring us up, Lars."
The image froze.
The counter on the bottom right of the screen indicated the video had more than thirty-two million views.
Joyce spoke without turning. "Hell of a risk to take, to save a man you barely knew."
Tighe shifted uncomfortably. "He was carrying batteries we needed."
Joyce paused a moment to process this. "I see." He stood and turned to face Tighe. "You were trapped in the Tian Xing cave system for four days after the quake."
Tighe remained silent as Joyce walked around the sofa to meet him.
"Four days. Ropes and communications cut. Carrying wounded, few supplies, constant aftershocks, collapsed passages, flooding. No immediate hope of rescue."
Tighe still said nothing.
"Yet you brought ten out of sixteen to the surface alive-and you weren't even the expedition lead."
"I didn't have a choice."
"Oh, I disagree. You made nothing but choices-life-and-death choices under intense constraints." Joyce studied Tighe. "This is the only clip that's made it to the Internet, but there's over two hundred hours more from the expedition helmet-cams. I've watched every minute."
Tighe narrowed his eyes. Had Joyce really gotten hold of the expedition video? Not even Tighe had seen it.
"Organizational psychologists will be studying the footage for years. You could make a solid career on the team dynamics speaking circuit."
"Is that why you invited me here?"
Joyce laughed again. "God no. What a waste that would be." He extended his hand. "I'm Nathan Joyce."
Tighe paused, then shook his host's hand. "Everyone calls me J.T."
"J.T." Joyce was tall and lean, with an intense gaze as he gripped Tighe's hand firmly. A smile in the corner of his eyes. "Thanks for coming all this way. I think you'll be interested in what we're up to."
Tighe heard a chair creak in the corner and suddenly noticed another man seated at a round table there-South Asian, in his sixties, with a trim gray beard and expensive-looking glasses. The man wore a jacket with slacks but was nowhere near as fashionable as the poolside party guests.
"This is Nobel Prize-winning economist Sankar Korrapati. Sankar, this is J.T., the cave diver I was telling you about."
The academic approached and vigorously shook Tighe's hand.
Tighe felt out of his league. "I don't know anything about economics, but it's an honor."
"Mr. Tighe. The honor is mine. You are most daring."
There was no reasonable reply to that so Tighe simply nodded.
Joyce offered the sofa. "Have a seat. Can we get you anything to drink?"
"No. I'm fine, thanks." Tighe sat warily. Something was up. He just didn't know what.
The professor retrieved a small remote from a nearby credenza and clicked it. The TV winked off and instead a hologram glowed into existence above the coffee table. It consisted of 3D words in bold white letters:
What is money?
Tighe was momentarily startled. He'd never seen an open-air holographic display in person.
Joyce noticed his reaction. "Pretty cool, eh? Software-defined light. I was an angel investor in the firm that pioneered it."
Tighe gazed at the words: What is money? Their meaning started to sink in. He couldn't help but think this looked like the beginning of the world's most elaborate time-share pitch. "Mr. Joyce-"
"Uh, Nathan, I appreciate the invitation-"
"But why are you here? I'll explain, but first, I'd like you to listen to a talk Sankar has been delivering in certain circles." On Tighe's attempt to speak he added, "Indulge me." Joyce turned to the professor. "Doctor, if you will."
"Of course." Korrapati moved alongside the glowing hologram and stared intently. "Can you tell me from where money comes, Mr. Tighe?"
Tighe looked from the professor to Joyce and back again. Apparently they were doing this. "I . . . I guess it comes from a mint."
"To be clear: by 'money,' I do not mean the physical instruments-the paper and the coins-but the unit of value that money represents. How does a given unit of money come into existence?"
Tighe was about to answer when he realized with surprise that he did not know.
"Do not be embarrassed. Many MBAs do not know either."
The holographic words morphed into a US one-dollar bill.
"The reality is that only 5 percent of all money is created by governments in the form of cash in circulation."
The holographic dollar shrank to a minuscule size against a backdrop of scrolling database records.
"The remaining 95 percent of money is created by commercial banks whenever they extend credit to a borrower."
Tighe looked at Joyce quizzically. Joyce nodded for him to pay attention.
The hologram now transformed into a house with a "Sold" sign on the front lawn.
"For example, when a new mortgage is originated, that money does not come out of a bank vault. Instead, the money is created as a result of the loan. The bank supplies it to the borrower as a bank credit, with the borrower promising to repay the principal plus interest at a future date. This new debt is registered with a federal reserve or a central bank to the commercial bank's account, allowing it to now loan out more money based on a multiple of that new loan-usually at a ratio of ten or more to one. So the more money the bank lends, the more it has available to lend."
Tighe frowned. "Hold on. How can that be?"
"Because in the modern world money does not represent value, Mr. Tighe-money represents debt. And the more debt that is created in the world, the more money there is."
Tighe looked again at Joyce.
Joyce gestured for Korrapati to continue.
"To be clear, it is very important that banks get back this virtual money they loan out-and with interest-or the bank will become insolvent. However, as long as loans keep getting repaid, a bank can continue creating new money in the form of credit."