Bicycling in a driving rain at night—Ash would never get used to that completely. The brown shingle house she and Forrest shared with ten others, almost all of whom were volunteers for Out of the Blue like themselves, was perched near the top of Spruce Street in the Berkeley hills, which made for a long cold ride home. She could see Forrest’s battery-powered tail light blink a hundred yards ahead of her as usual, and she fought the usual resentment at his being that much further up the hill and closer to dry shelter.
They both wore full yellow slickers with hoods and trousers. She had tried various clear visors to protect her eyes but they fogged as soon as she began to exert herself on the incline. The bill of the hood kept the rain from her eyes as long as the wind wasn’t blowing and she kept her head down. That was dangerous, though. She had to be on the lookout for vehicles. Coming down the hill, they tended to swing wide on the slick curves, and going up they cut tight to the inside. One split second of distraction and she could be smashed into the parked cars or across the sidewalk. She did not like to think about what that would do to her body.
But tonight her body rang with an illicit exhilaration. The higher she climbed, the more it became apparent that the entire Bay Area was under a blanket of black.
As they left the office, downtown had been dark except for the headlights of a few automobiles and a spattering of illuminated rectangles in buildings with emergency power. Streetlights hung their deadened lenses over riven slabs of pavement. In the residential areas, no porchlights shone; the occasional spectral beam of a flashlight or an occultish candleflame passed behind a windowshade among the many two-storey houses and low apartments that otherwise presented closed facades against the night. Across the bay, the twinkling artificial galaxy that ordinarily claimed the space between the water and the sky was reduced to a few wan solitaires. In the rain-blurred distance, the red beacons atop each tower of the Golden Gate Bridge quickened and dimmed in dolorous rhythms, one out of phase with the other.
She imagined her father was getting a lot of phone calls just now. Good.
She battled up the remaining elevation, walked her bike into the musty darkness of the garage that Forrest had left open for her, closed the heavy carriage door, and latched the combination lock behind her.
Once inside the house, she smelled cooked cabbage, brown rice, damp wool, vinyl, and burnt candlewax. She hung her raingear among the soggy outerwear that crowded the wall hooks and ran upstairs. Voices rose up in tones of muted celebration.
She wondered what Forrest was telling them. None of them were sure whether Out of the Blue warranted surveillance or whether they among the other members across the country would merit such scrutiny. And how would they be spied upon and by whom? Somebody occupied the house almost all the time, so no outsider would have the opportunity to plant a bug or a camera. Jason said that government agents could eavesdrop using parabolic microphones aimed at the windows and read the minute vibrations of voices in the panes of glass. But no one had ever noticed any strange people coming or going among the neighbors, whom they made a point of getting to know, offering to help with errands or yardwork (many of them were elderly), and sometimes sharing food in bulk, like sacks of oatmeal or bushels of apples (some warm-weather varieties still grew in Sonoma and in the Sierras if the blossoms survived the heavy spring rains). There were no Homelander block wardens, as there were in other parts of the state, even as close as Ash’s mother’s home in Antioch. So she imagined he was telling them exactly what he had done.
He was freelancing. Hacking into Verdegen had nothing to do with Out of the Blue’s mission, which was benignancy itself: to promote education and technology to reduce fossil fuel use wherever possible. Ash’s specialty was photovoltaics. She had been in the doctoral program in the Material Science and Engineering Department until her stipend evaporated. She had met Forrest four years ago on the UC solar car project and had invited him to join the organization which she had been part of since she first arrived on campus. Out of the Blue had a second function: to use the courts to oppose projects that would perpetuate fossil fuel use. The biggest agenda item now was the Alameda LNG project that Ash’s father oversaw.
The gravity of what Forrest had done began to seep into her consciousness as she draped her wet clothing across a rung of the wooden rack that stood in the bathtub. (Twelve people, no clothes dryer.) That he was trying to do it was an open secret at the office, but no one, certainly not Ash, believed he could penetrate Verdegen’s systems. It had been like a game, and she herself had enjoyed an adolescent thrill at the thought of her father’s project being disrupted. Now that Forrest had really done it she realized that an investigation would follow. It might be construed as a terrorist act. No, there was no doubt that it would be. It was a breach of cyber security that threatened the grid. She pushed back the panicky thought that somebody may have been hurt because of the power outage, may have tripped in the dark or had a traffic accident at an intersection where the signals died. If Out of the Blue were implicated, it could go very badly for all of them.
Nevermind Out of the Blue, she suddenly thought. She and Forrest personally could be discovered and be arrested. She knew what he had done. If she didn’t turn him in, she could be accused of abetting a terrorist act.
She put on a dry bra and shirt, which took the edge off her anxiety. Downstairs, she edged through the crowd around Forrest, who held forth in the kitchen. He dipped raw vegetables into a dish of hummus and in the candlelight Ash could see a bit of the beige paste cling to his beard. She suppressed her initial disgust and wiped it away with a shirtsleeve as he put his arm around her and cheerfully submitted to her grooming.
Dave was ladling a brown rice and cabbage stew into shallow dishes that each of the housemates held out to him.
“This is delicious,” Megan said. “Did the cabbage come from Zack’s farm?”
Zack was a former member of the group who had moved a couple of years ago to an intentional community of farmers north of Sacramento called Rancho del Sol. Zack’s parents had been big in the organic food movement. As a child, he had spent a lot of time on farms and, from what he had told them, knew a lot about agriculture. They’d been able to sustain themselves despite the erratic swings in the weather these past few years. Flowering plants, fooled by unseasonal warmth, blossomed weeks early, out of sync with the bees and other pollinators. Sudden flooding rains sometimes deluged the Sacramento Valley, especially in spring and fall. Last year, twelve inches of rain had fallen in forty-eight hours around Sacramento in early May, wiping out tens of thousands of acres of ripening fruits and vegetables. The remnant of the Mediterranean summer remained predictably rainless. But summer had also become the season of baking heat storms. Last year, in June, August, and October, a huge high pressure system had kept daytime temperatures above 125 degrees across the valley for more than a week. The first had destroyed the apricots, plums, and peaches, the second had taken out most of the pears, corn, and alfalfa, and the third destroyed eighty percent of the grape harvest. But Rancho del Sol spent a lot of time diversifying their crops, both in variety and timing, invested in labor-intensive hand care, and built water capture systems, portable shade structures, and greenhouses. They eked by with great effort, with little to spare. That was why this homely meal was a feast.
“Everything is from Zack’s. Even the rice,” Dave said.
Ash heard any mention of Zack with mixed emotions. On the one hand, she was disappointed that he had left the group. Departures felt a bit like betrayals. On the other, growing one’s own food in the country sounded wonderful to her. She would like to do it herself, but didn’t; whether out of dedication to her work or to Forrest, fear of failure, or plain inertia, she couldn’t say.
Jason went to the sink to rinse his bowl. He turned the handle; a thin stream dribbled out, then nothing.
“No water pressure. The distribution pumps are down,” Dave said.
Megan then asked the same question that Ash had when the strange diagrams had appeared on Forrest’s screen. Had he been detected?
“I work by myself. It’s safer that way. If I get caught, nobody knows anything,” Forrest said.
Dave said, “Well, that’s blown now, isn’t it?”
Ash watched Forrest open his mouth to speak, but then catch himself. He had been bragging about it ever since they got back.
“O ye of little faith,” he said at last.
A bit of nervous laughter flitted up.
“Do you all think this is a joke?” Ash said. She said “all,” but the remark was for Forrest. Sometimes she couldn’t believe how blithe he could be about consequences.
As Forrest glared at her, the lone light in the dining room blinked into brightness. A groan went up around the table. Forrest checked his watch.
“An hour and twenty minutes,” he said.
“Who’s on clean up?” Megan asked.
No one answered.
Forrest left the kitchen and headed up the stairs. Ash had embarrassed him and there would be smoothing over to do, so she started after him but stopped when Dave took her arm.
“You’re right, this is no time for jokes,” he said. “It’s a time for serious measures. Way more serious than a little hacking.”
“What do you mean?”
“Forrest is right about one thing: sometimes it’s better to work alone. Much safer. But alone means alone. Telling no one.”
Then he let her arm go and walked out of the kitchen himself.
* * *
Upstairs in the cramped, chilly room where they slept, Ash and Forrest undressed for bed in silence. They took turns using the bathroom, washed with cold water, and brushed their teeth by candlelight. Just because the power had returned didn’t mean that it should be used.
Ash went into the bedroom and laid her robe at the foot of the bed while Forrest finished up. She got into bed with her back toward Forrest’s side and tucked her nightgown snugly around herself. Dave was right, she knew, but she didn’t know exactly what he meant, or why he had told her. Was he encouraging her to do something? Or telling her that he was going to do something? Or just coming on to her?
Forrest came in with the lit taper and set it on the nightstand before climbing under the covers himself. He put his hand on her hip.
“I’m tired,” she said.
His hand traveled.
Pots banged downstairs. There had been some arguing over the cleanup. Megan had insisted it was Ash’s turn, but Ash insisted just as strongly that it was not and had prevailed, not without feeling small for having been involved in such bickering. Ash felt sure from the sounds that they were using hot water and electric light. Forrest’s hand came to rest in the valley of her waist.
“Come on, Ash. You’re right. I shouldn’t make light of it. But we did a great thing tonight. I just got caught up in it.”
We, she thought. Ha.
He said, “Let’s celebrate.”
“Let’s be celibate instead.”
She stared at the shadow of the ladderback chair which flickered in the candlelight, the lambent glow from the Dark Ages, the seductive yellow warmth of simplicity, of living close to the earth, of being deeply connected with community, and of dying in childbirth; a glow ignorant of petrotechnology and the grand-scale chemistry experiment the modern world had collectively carried out on the very air it breathed, an experiment that had crested a tremendous wave of success and now tipped to catastrophic failure, carrying the inertia of two hundred years down the steep slope of the opposite face. Ash watched the faint helix of waxy smoke spiral toward the ceiling, the visible manifestation of carbon combining with oxygen at the raw flame, giving off more heat than light. Ash knew the laws of thermodynamics. She knew how inefficient candlelight was. It didn’t seem romantic to Ash at this moment, or simple or natural, but elemental, even crude.
Fiat lux. Let there be light. She found it ironic that these words from the Bible, a book that was the apotheosis of irrationality, should be the motto of her university. It was an imprecation, a conjure to substitute for an understanding of the beginnings of life, and not at all about enlightenment or reason.
“This is a great day,” said Forrest.
Ash threw back the covers. Her feet struck the floor. The noises from below tumbled up the stairwell. She went into the bathroom and closed the door and sat on the toilet seat. The rain had lightened; she strained to hear it but could not. She could see the drying rack in the tub in gray relief, and the dim outlines of the showerhead and the bottles and tubes on the shelf. She tried to discern the source of light. The moon through the clouds? The candle in the bedroom? A streetlight from the other side of the house? She looked to the small window with the pebbled glass and could clearly see a glow from the outside.
Let there be light. And all hell broke loose.
She was terrified of becoming pregnant, of adding one more mouth to graze the dwindling and befouled commons. Abortions were difficult to arrange, even in Berkeley, even if you had health insurance (which she did not), since the Supreme Court had ruled that a woman’s right to privacy was superseded by the state’s interest in the unborn, in the fetus’s right to proceed to birth, and the father’s right—duty, the decision said—to protect his offspring. The President had welcomed the ruling on the grounds of national interest as well as morality. The United States was threatened by the high birthrates of people in foreign and unfriendly countries who would eventually overwhelm us with numbers and destroy our way of life. He said he admired the Catholic Church’s position on birth control. Life was precious, he said.
She was seized with a paranoid thought. Was the plan to intensify climate change deliberately to depress birth rates and raise mortality in the Third World? To starve them? The logic was perversely compelling. The Third World, largely Muslim, was up in arms over the collapse of the climate, homicidally and suicidally desperate, far more so than at the turn of the century. The President had said, when he was swept into office after the dirty bomb had been detonated in Long Beach Harbor, “Each man and woman in the world must choose whether he or she is on the side of good or evil.” Terrorism only intensified after the ice cap disappeared two years later, when he said, “America has given great gifts to the world. We are on the side of the angels. The seven billion people who live on this earth owe their existence to Western technology. Without it, there would be no supporting such a number of souls on this small planet. Imagine a world of seven billion subsistence farmers. The thought is absurd.”
But the very idea of intensifying climate change on purpose was murderous, genocidal. Ash did not believe such a terrible conspiracy could be sustained across the entire government, not even with the American Homeland Party in office. Still, the residue of the idea clung to her thoughts like a thin film of rank tar. Deliberate or not, the practical effect of continued fossil fuel use was the same. Quixotic acts like Forrest’s seemed at this moment a deeply human thing to do despite what Dave said, maybe even the right thing, even though it was itself destructive and futile.
She opened the medicine cabinet and lightly ran her fingers over the top shelf until they grazed the thin plastic case that contained her diaphragm. She had gone back to it from the patch to save money. That seemed stupid now; the risk of pregnancy was much lower with the patch. She did know where to get a morning-after pill if she had to. There were always people willing to take the risk of operating in the black market. But she earned no income whatsoever. All she had were the monthly drabs her father doled out from her trust account.
She sat back on the toilet seat and plucked the little round cap out of the case by its thick collar. She opened a tube of spermicide and applied it liberally. Then she inserted the device into her vagina and returned to the bedroom.
She reached for the light switch. The overhead lamp burst the room wide open.
“Hey,” Forrest called out.
“This is how I want it,” said Ash.
“Are you nuts?” said Forrest.
“Do you want to do this or not?”
She stood at the foot of the bed. Forrest, up on one elbow, shaded his eyes with his other hand. He was squinting to keep the brightness out and to let vision in. She pinched a bit of the spermicide that was on her finger into a fold in her nightgown. Let there not be light. Let there be something that transcended light, outside both rationality and irrationality. She flipped the switch again and the overhead went out.
“I’m sorry,” she said.
She got in bed beside him.
“Do you have any condoms?” she said.