Chapter 4

The storm swept down the streets of Berkeley from the northwest. Each gust of wind rolled another band of rain between the old brick buildings and the cheek-by-jowl storefronts from one end of Shattuck Avenue to the other, spinning tight eddies into the sidestreets. A few cars edged their way through the gloom, their windshield wipers slapping the water aside while their headlamps carved truncated cones of pale blue into the cool, damp air. Above the sidewalk, behind the drawn curtains of a second-storey window, Ashley Russell ground away at one of her least favorite chores—searching a law database for a set of keywords (this time, “Coast Guard FERC sea level”) that Michael, the head lawyer for Out of the Blue, had asked her to track down. Music emanated from a set of speakers tuned loud enough to overmatch normal conversation throughout the office. The aroma of curry reached her nose from the exhaust of the Indian restaurant next door. She had gotten used to resisting it. Restaurants, even simple ones like Mumbai Express, were way beyond budget for most people, certainly for her and the others in the office. The grant money for the solar car project had disappeared long ago, and she, like her boyfriend Forrest, was one of many unpaid volunteers for the organization. Michael and the two other lawyers got a small stipend. Her only source of money was what remained of her trust account which she had persuaded her father to release two years before her twenty-fifth birthday, when it would have become hers outright.

“I could have gone to Stanford,” she had said, “but I chose Berkeley, so in a way I saved that money, and I really need it now, Dad.” He agreed to give her a monthly allowance from it, though she thought her argument should have been good for the whole sum. She hated having to depend on him, to have to ask him for anything.

Beside her, Forrest’s eyes flickered between keyboard and screen. He was supposed to be doing a similar search. He thrashed the keys, paused, thrashed them again, then gingerly pressed the Return key. From the corner of her eye, she saw the dominant color of his screen flip from gray to black.

“I’m in,” he said, voice low.

Ash looked up.

“What do you mean?” she said.

“I mean I’ve got a control screen. Look.”

Ash rose from her office chair, which spun slowly and flashed yellow foam from a rent in the fabric. She leaned over Forrest’s shoulder. On the computer in his lap she saw a sparse network of lines punctuated by gnomic shapes that looked like tapered corks, bowties, and umbrellas. Most were green, though a few were red, yellow, or blue. Beside each shape, a bit of text prefixed a value that bounced around a tight range.

“It’s the whole pipeline system,” Forrest said. “This is pressure. That’s flow. That’s temperature.”

He pointed to the numbers one after the other, like a small child identifying animals in a picture book. A menu of functions across the top included Stop, Start, Ramp, Open, Close, View, Reports. As Forrest ran the mouse arrow over a few of the shapes, the menu at the top of the screen changed depending on the geometry underneath it, while a small data window popped up that identified each symbol and its operating profile.

“This is a valve. That’s a regulator. That’s a compressor. Complete with parameters.”

He turned his head toward Ash. A smile appeared within his wooly beard.

“User friendly,” he said.

Ash watched her boyfriend and concentrated on the giddy apprehension that pressed against the inside of her skin.

“Is it live? Can you be detected?”

“I don’t think so. I’m encrypted and running through a string of proxies. I’m pretty sure it’s live.”

“Shouldn’t you get out?” she said.

The smile submerged beneath the black mass of hair and was replaced by a look of annoyance.

“Let’s see what we can do,” he said.

He clicked View, then System. The screen jumped to a block diagram of Verdegen’s entire gas network, from Canada to Arizona and back up to Nevada. He clicked on the section that represented San Francisco Bay. The image on the screen resolved back to the network with the odd geometric symbols. In this view, rectangles represented the power plants that rimmed Carquinez Strait, which poured the San Joaquin and Sacramento Rivers into San Pablo and San Francisco Bays. In the lower right was a dotted outline of three circles embedded in an obtuse triangle. The Alameda LNG plant. He clicked it. A message popped up, “Under Development.”

Ash stared at the shape under the cursor and felt every rational thought retreat to the periphery of her mind. She had honestly not expected Forrest to be able to do this.

“Don’t do anything. We need to think this through first.”

She realized she sounded scared, so she added, “This is huge. Let’s not squander it.”

“What would squandering it look like?” said Forrest. The inflection of his voice did not rise but fell at the end of the question.

He swirled the cursor around the screen. Pop-up boxes flashed and decayed like fireworks. He brought the cursor to rest on a green bowtie that connected to a rectangle labeled “Martinez PP2.” The pop-up box read “Inlet valve PE408-32, Pres 460, Flow 2.24, Temp 61F.” He clicked the mouse and a menu displayed two choices: Open, which was dimmed, and Close, which was bright.

Ash saw it and thought, could it really be that easy?

Forrest’s hand hovered on the mouse for a moment. Then he moved the cursor over Close and pressed the button. A dialog box appeared.

“Are you sure you want to Close valve PE408-32? Yes. No.”

Forrest said, “Hell yes.”

He clicked. The bowtie turned red. A message said, “Valve PE408-32 closed.”

Ash flinched. Neither of them spoke. Twenty seconds went by. Michael appeared in the doorway and leaned his long arm on the jamb.

“Ash, what did you find?”

Ash didn’t respond. She was watching the numbers on the screen carom from value to value, first to one extreme, then to the other, converging on some indeterminate stasis. Michael straightened up and stepped into the room.

“What are you looking at?” he said.

The few lights in the office flickered twice, went brown for about three seconds, brightened, and then went out altogether. The computers went to battery mode. The values on Forrest’s screen came to rest.

Go to Chapter 5


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