Lumin rubbernecked around Roundstone’s estate as he pulled up next to one of his warehouses.
“What’s this?” asked Lumin.
“Before we get down to brass tacks let me show you a few more things we’re working on in Z,” said Roundstone, holding a door open for Lumin labeled “PROJECT 34-7.”
After entering the warehouse, Lumin followed Roundstone and Andrew up a long flight of stairs illuminated by yellow lights. Her nose was swirling with the odors of cleaning fluid, wet vegetation and–“Do I smell cold cuts?”
“Please, put this on. It’s for the sake of the project, more than your health…although it hardly matters now,” said Roundstone.
With no shortage of confusion, Lumin put on the surgical mask Spotswood handed her. Andrew put one on as well then pushed open a large set of double doors. The three clanked onto a large steel platform overlooking a gigantic pink sea of what looked like slowly undulating taffy.
“Whoa,” said Lumin, looking below. Several men in white hazmat suits were probing the “taffy” with instruments or plucking away at yellow tablet computers.
Roundstone held his arms out wide. “This pink mass will someday change the world. It promises to virtually end world hunger while reversing global warming at the same time.”
“It’s meat!” said Andrew, excitedly. “Cool, huh?”
Roundstone glared at Andrew for ruining the suspense he was building.
“What?” asked Andrew, shrugging.
Lumin looked at Roundstone. “Meat?”
“Yes. Below you is 300 square yards of lab-grown cultured meat–what we’re calling ‘Highsteak,’–all of it cloned from a tiny base network of bovine stem cells. The sample tissues were replicated using an exclusive production process we’ve developed.”
All Lumin could do was nod.
Roundstone continued. “This slab of Highsteak represents our first attempt at mass production. The ‘stretchers’ below the slab keep the tissue strands malleable, preventing toughness.”
“Sounds so appetizing,” said Lumin, scrunching her nose.
“The meat industry produces 18 percent of the world’s total greenhouse gas emissions, including methane and nitrous oxide, two of the most harmful. Livestock in the U.S. alone consumes seven times more grain than the human population and meat production requires mass amounts of potable water and fossil fuels. Highsteak nullifies all of these problems and eliminates the need to slaughter a single animal.”
“Unbelievable!” said Lumin. “Is it costly to make?”
“We’ve managed to drive down our costs considerably. A hamburger patty composed of Highsteak would cost about $4 dollars, but that price will drop even further once we’ve perfected our mass production techniques,” said Roundstone.
Lumin shook he head. “And it tastes like steak? Beef?”
Andrew put his hands over his mask and stifled a laugh.
Roundstone sighed. “That’s our major problem at the moment. Our initial testing of Highsteak produced samples that tasted remarkably good, much like lean beef or bison. Unfortunately, when we upped our production to the levels you see here–”
“It tastes like plain yogurt mixed with Spam jelly,” interrupted Andrew with a smile.
Roundstone cleared his throat. “Yes, it appears when we scaled up our efforts a few of the production parameters were thrown off. We’ll get the taste where it needs to be in time, but this batch is destined for the grinders. We’ll re-purpose it as fertilizer for our agricultural projects.”
Lumin was mesmerized by the rolling wave of pink below. “Hopefully it tastes better to the plants. Too bad. I’d like to be updated on your progress, if possible. This could change the world–but yeah–it’s going to have to taste a lot better than spammy yogurt for people to accept it.”
The three left the warehouse and Lumin took off her mask and took a big pull of fresh air. “Ah, better.”
“The smell is a byproduct of our flavor problem,” said Roundstone, removing his mask as well.
“I don’t know, the stuff tastes a little funky but you get used to it,” said Andrew.
“Andrew, Lumin and I are going to proceed to our meeting together. I’ll find you when we’re done,” said Roundstone.
“Oh! Alright,” said Andrew, looking a little disappointed. He looked at Lumin with puppy dog eyes. “I’ll catch up with you later.”
“See you soon,” said Lumin, nearly blushing.
“Go ahead and take the cart, Eldy, I’m going to jog over to 33-5 and see if Kilian wants to take a break. He owes me money,” said Andrew before running off.
“Let’s head back to the mansion,” said Roundstone, getting back in the cart with Lumin.
“The inflatable version?” asked Lumin.
“Whichever you’d prefer.”
“I could use some solid ground and a stiff drink,” said Lumin. She felt disturbingly comfortable around Roundstone despite his weird monkey racers and buildings full of undulating pink meat.
Roundstone laughed as the cart raced away from the warehouse. “At your service.”
Two hours and a few rounds of Irish whiskey later, Lumin and Roundstone were nearing the end of their meeting in the mansion’s study. They were facing each other in a pair of cushy, red leather chairs next to a roaring fire. Classic billionaire, thought Lumin.
Lumin had never even considered drinking during a business meeting before, but even with her project on the line, Roundstone had managed to lower her anxiety and lessen her inhibitions–or maybe it was just the booze.
“I should do this more often,” said Lumin, her cheeks flushed.
“What exactly?” asked Roundstone, sitting down his glass.
“Drink your liquor,” said Lumin, taking another sip with a smile. Stop flirting, she immediately thought, scolding herself.
Roundstone chuckled. “You’ll always be welcome at Z, Miss Mira. I’ve taken quite a shine to you.”
“Oh, likewise I’m sure!” said Lumin, slightly mocking Roundstone’s formal tone. Her glass slipped out of her hand and shattered on the hardwood floor. “Oh shit, sorry.”
“Not a problem,” said Roundstone.
“Andrew’s going to have to remake that with balloons in the inflatable mansion, isn’t he?” said Lumin, reminded of the level of insanity surrounding her.
“Ah, I’ll spare him this one,” said Roundstone. “I’m getting a little bored with the inflatable replica project, I’m afraid.”
“I think Andrew likes it around here.”
“I appreciate his company. When his current installation at Z ends I’ll find another way to keep him busy, I’m sure.”
Lumin smiled. “He’s a good kid.”
Roundstone leaned a little closer. “Miss Mira, I’ve decided to fund your project.”
Lumin smiled, feeling a little shocked. “That’s…great, Mr. Roundstone!”
“Please, call me Eldridge.”
Lumin nodded. “Eldridge, under all of this sci-fi silliness is an amazing opportunity to do some good in the world.”
“I agree. Although, I admit the science fiction aspect does appeal to my inner child quite a bit.”
“I suppose it was genius on Lumb’s part to expand this from an international social media battle to an actual battle,” said Lumin. “Apparently, most millionaires suffer from chronic arrested development. I guess they just want to see their toys come to life. Oops.” Lumin held her mouth. “I didn’t mean–”
“I don’t disagree with you,” said Eldridge with a grin. “Besides, I’m a billionaire, not a millionaire.”
“true,” said Lumin, letting a laugh escape.
“It’s a shame your benefactors’ turned tail when word of your team’s…unconventional…mode of working emerged.”
“Oh, you heard about that.” Lumin exhaled loudly. She felt dizzy. “God, I’ve turned into a mess. I apologize.”
“You’re fine. Miss Mira. I should have been more mindful of my pours.”
“I was the one sloshing it back,” said Lumin, embarrassed.
“Let’s not dwell on it. Truthfully, a perfect pitch would have bored me to tears, so I should thank you for sparing me. I’ve had fun.”
“Well, my pleasure,” said Lumin, shaking her head.
“I confess, even before you arrived I had essentially made up my mind. I’ll fully fund your remaining build costs and repay any debt the team has accrued up to this point.”
“Lumb used up a substantial amount of credit after the benefactors got cold feet, just to warn you,” said Lumin. The man said yes, shut up! she suddenly thought.
“To his credit, Ryan Lumb made sure I was aware of his financial issues. Once you’re team is operating at full capacity, I plan to use my connections in the business world to restore the faith of your benefactors. If they still drop out, I’ll step up even further.”
“Thank you so much, Eldy.”
Eldridge blushed. “Actually, Eldridge would be preferable.”
Lumin smirked. “Sure…alright, Eldridge.”
“I’m afraid I do have a couple of conditions.”
Shit, thought Lumin. “Absolutely, just name them.”
“I’ve already informed Mr. Lumb that I require 100% project transparency, including access to every aspect of R & D and production, from design specs to the final build.”
Lumin nodded. “That’s fair. After seeing your science projects I think I would appreciate your input.”
“Happy to hear that.” Roundstone stood up and walked over to Lumin. He took her hand and gently lifted her to her feet. “I think that about wraps it up, don’t you?”
Lumin blushed as she stood close to Roundstone, having to turn away from his eyes. After trading in his captain’s uniform and old-man makeup for an finely-fitted Armani suit he had become distressingly handsome. His charm and graciousness weren’t helping matters either. Being a little odd and prone to flights of fancy only enhanced his mystique.
With the whiskey lowering her resolve Lumin struggled not to cling to Roundstone’s tall, lean frame and kiss him. What the fuck are you doing? she asked herself. Remember, he made all his money with an algorithm that put the country back on the edge of financial ruin.
“Feeling alright, Miss Mira?” asked Roundstone with concern.
“I’m fine, I just overdid it a tad,” said Lumin, taking a few steps to the side. She liked when he called her Miss Mira.
“I know you previously stated you’d like to fly back after the meeting, but you’re welcome to stay here as long as you wish. We have plenty of guest rooms available in the mansion. If you’re hungry my chefs can prepare you a world-class meal from any–”
“No. I appreciate the offer, Eldridge, but I better get back home. If I’m gone much longer my cats will start breaking things,” said Lumin. In truth, she didn’t have any cats–she just didn’t trust herself to stay.
“Of course. I’ll get the jet prepped for take-off. Join me outside? I’ll arrange for Andrew to take us to the airstrip in a proper car,” said Roundstone as he pulled out his phone and sent a text.
“Thanks,” said Lumin. She walked with Roundstone through a dark hallway laden with degrees, awards and framed photo-ops.
“Oh, I had one more condition I neglected to mention,” said Roundstone, turning around as they reached the entryway.
Lumin’s heart fluttered. Stop that. “Yes?”
“You’ve shown me more about yourself tonight than you may be aware of, Miss Mira.”
“Oh? Is that so?”
“You’re an intelligent and driven individual. I have a sense that you’re far stronger than you may even realize. I’m never wrong about people. I hope you won’t consider my next request out of line.”
“What’s your condition?” asked Lumin, her curiosity gnawing at her.
“I want you to pilot your team’s robot.”
Lumin swallowed hard. “Excuse me?”