“A taut near-future thriller”—Publishers Weekly
“Should appeal to fans of hard sf and technothrillers.”—Library Journal
“An amazingly tense and for-all-the-marbles thriller.”—SF Site
A geopolitical miscalculation tainted the world’s major oil fields with radioactivity and plunged the Middle East into chaos. Any oil that remains usable is more prized than ever. No one can build solar farms, wind farms, and electric cars quickly enough to cope. The few countries still able to export oil and natural gas—Russia chief among them—have a stranglehold on the world economy.
And then, from the darkness of space, came Phoebe. Rather than divert the onrushing asteroid, America captured it into Earth orbit.
Solar power satellites—cheaply mass-produced in orbit with resources mined from the new moon, to beam vast amounts of power to the ground—offer America its last, best hope of avoiding servitude and economic ruin.
As though building miles-across structures in space isn’t challenging enough, special interests, from technophobes to eco-extremists to radio astronomers, want to stop the project. And the remaining petro powers will do anything to protect their newfound dominance of world affairs.
NASA engineer Marcus Judson is determined to make the powersat demonstration project a success. And he will—even though nothing in his job description mentions combating an international cabal, or going into space to do it.
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About the Author
Edward M. Lerner worked in high tech for thirty years, as everything from engineer to senior vice president, for much of that time writing science fiction as a hobby. Since 2004 he has written full-time, and his books run the gamut from technothrillers, like Small Miracles, to traditional SF, like his InterstellarNet series, to, with Larry Niven, the grand space epic Fleet of Worlds series of Ringworld companion novels.
Ed's short fiction has appeared in anthologies, collections, and many of the usual science fiction magazines. He also writes the occasional nonfiction article, on topics as varied as asteroid deflection, privacy (or lack thereof) in the Internet age, and the role of communications in science fiction.
Read an Excerpt
By Edward M. Lerner
Tor BooksCopyright © 2012 Edward M. Lerner
All right reserved.
Monday, April 10
Marcus Judson slipped into the back of the downtown Baltimore hotel ballroom, more than an hour late. Though the room was packed, it did not seem like anyone was having a ball. Certainly not his colleagues huddled at the speakers’ table at the opposite end of the room.
He surveilled from behind a freestanding sign that read: THE POWER OF POWERSATS: A TOWN MEETING. From the way Jeff Robbins, one of the EPA representatives on the dais, blotted his face with his handkerchief, the townsfolk bore, however metaphorically, torches and pitchforks.
The PowerHolo orientation spiel (of which Marcus was thoroughly sick, after many such gatherings) ran about thirty minutes. That meant the Q & A session had just begun. It did not bode well to find Jeff already wound so tight. Plenty of head-in-the-sand types in the crowd, then. Damned Luddites.
Marcus hated being such a cynic—but he was more this way every day.
This could have been any public meeting room anywhere. High ceiling. Cheap carpet and cloth-covered walls to muffle the audience noises. Sidewalls comprised of narrow segments that, folded into accordion pleats, would open into other, similar rooms for additional space. Recessed ceiling lights. Amplifier and loudspeakers deployed across the foot of the dais. Holo projection console.
Men and women filled the rows of chairs, and yet more people had queued up in the aisles for turns at the audience microphones. At the right-hand mike, a tall, balding man, his sleeves rolled up, was gesturing grandly. Marcus had arrived too late to catch the man’s point. If he had a point. They often didn’t.
“… would be a better use of public land,” the balding man finally concluded.
“Thank you for your comment,” Lisa Jackson began. As she—as all the panelists—had been trained. “We agree that parks are important. That said, so is a sufficiency of electrical power. We at the Department of the Interior must consider both.”
The novelty of powersat town meetings was long past; the room’s lone tripod-mounted camera might feed only the municipal Internet server. With no media visible the protocol would have been the same, because half the audience sat holding comps or phones or datasheets. Any slipup would be on YouTube within minutes. So all panelists were trained in changing the subject. Better a nonanswer than an impolitic one.
If inconvenient questions were to be evaded, what was the point? Why hold these town meetings at all? Marcus had asked, and his question, evidently, was also impolitic. “It’s policy,” a long-ago boss had once told Marcus in similar circumstances. “It doesn’t have to make sense.”
But coaching by a NASA spin doctor was not what had made Marcus a cynic.
He half listened, half pondered how and when to move to the front of the room. On the dais, behind the long, skinny table and its billowing, ruffled skirt, sat eight chairs: two places each for Interior, Energy, the EPA, and NASA. The lone unoccupied seat was Marcus’s.
With Lisa expounding from five chairs away from the empty seat, this seemed as good a time as any for Marcus to claim his spot.
He edged through the least crowded aisle, murmuring apologies as he went, answering dirty looks by tapping the NASA ID badge clipped to his suit lapel. I’m with the government. I really am here to help.
Once through the crowd, he slid into the empty chair at the speakers’ table.
Ellen Tanaka, NASA program manager for the powersat—and Marcus’s boss—looked weary. They all did. Her eyes, too myopic for LASIK, were owl-like behind thick, round lenses. She covered her mike with a hand. “Good of you to join us,” she whispered.
That he had texted ahead changed nothing. Everyone had made the drive that morning from somewhere in metro D.C. She would not want to hear about the rain, the line at the gas station, or signals flashing red throughout Fairfax County because the traffic management system had crashed or been hacked. He would not have, either.
“Car trouble,” he mouthed. “Sorry.”
Lisa was still answering the balding man. “We’ll be using property already dedicated to power generation, in this case for ground-based solar power. In particular, we’ll retrofit selected solar farms with arrays of short antennas suited to receiving power downlinks. Land recycling, if you will, very environmentally correct. The antennas will be vertical, scarcely blocking any sunlight from the solar cells on the ground. So, you see, the powersat demonstration does not preempt any parkland.”
“But that land shouldn’t be wasted on—”
“Thank you for your comment,” Ellen interrupted. “I’m afraid that’s all the time we have with so many others still waiting.” She pointed to the head of another line, where a middle-aged woman, rail thin, her face tanned and leathery, clutched a folded sheet of paper. The woman wore the judgmental expression of a Resetter. “Yes, ma’am?”
Marcus and Ellen took turns moderating these meetings, because NASA’s part of the solar-power-satellite project drew the fewest questions. Public comments mostly concerned public safety, energy policy, and land use. Never mind, Marcus thought, that Powersat One, the full-scale demo system nearing completion, would be the largest structure ever built. Or that NASA was constructing PS-1 in space, where neither night nor weather could interrupt the sunlight streaming onto its solar cells.
But all that dependable—and desperately needed—solar energy became useful only when it reached the ground. And once brought to Earth, the power had to be distributed far and wide. Terrestrial solar farms already had connections to the national power grid. Siting the downlink antennas amid the ground-based solar farms just made sense.
To Marcus, anyway.
“About that downlink,” the thin woman began, frowning. “‘Downlink’ sounds like an Internet connection, and that’s more than a little disingenuous. Your downlink is nothing so benign. You’re talking about microwaves. A gigawatt or so of microwaves. If you turn on that satellite, it’ll roast anyone unlucky enough to encounter the power beam.”
“No, it won’t,” someone muttered from down the table—and a mike picked it up.
Marcus leaned forward to see who had gone off script. Apparently Brad Kaminski, from DOE. He was clutching his mike stand, and a bit red in the face.
“Um, thank you for your comment,” Brad backtracked. “Yes, downlinks from the power satellite will use microwaves. That’s for a good reason: Earth’s atmosphere is transparent to microwaves. By beaming microwaves, we can harvest most of the power on the ground.
“But as for safety, ma’am, there is no cause for concern. The beam is strongest at its center. By the edge—”
“How strong?” someone in the crowd hollered.
“About like direct, overhead sunlight,” Brad said. “By the edge of the—”
“Like a second sun beating down on you,” the woman at the mike said. “That should be healthy.”
Brad persisted. “By the edge of the collection area, a zone miles across, the beam has attenuated to well within public safety standards.”
The woman laughed humorlessly. “You expect the birds to mind your fences?”
From deep within the crowd, a snort. “Lady, do you have any idea how many birds get chopped up by wind generators?”
“Forget the damned birds!” someone shouted back from across the ballroom. “Just keep the lights on and my car charged.”
Taunts and insults erupted, on every side of the issue. Cameras big and small pointed to memorialize the chaos. It took Ellen several minutes to restore order—
In order that more decorous criticisms could resume. That powersats were: unsafe, unnecessary, or poor investments. That if only everyone conserved, instead of wasting resources on foolishly audacious projects, it would be better for the United States and the entire Earth, too. That the country could extract additional energy from the tides, or build more wind farms, or reshingle more roofs with solar cells, or grow more biomass, or … do anything other than the powersat project.
And from the opposite end of the opinion spectrum: That the wind did not always blow when people need power. That—duh!—the sun did not shine at night or do much for snow-covered roofs. That sunlight beating down on Arizona did nothing for New England. That people shrieking “energy sprawl” against a few square miles to be used for East Coast microwave downlinks fooled no one by suggesting new high-voltage power lines could be built across the continent from solar farms in the southwestern deserts. That the NIMBYs had even less credibility proposing huge new storage systems to save solar power for exploitation at night. And that if the tree-huggers did not wise up, civilization would grind to a halt. Shivering in the dark.
Since the Crudetastrophe, oil was scarce and painfully expensive. That did not make gasoline any less essential. There simply was not enough electrical power generation to cope with the hurried—and ongoing—switchover to plug-in cars; if there had been, the overburdened power grid could not reliably distribute the added load. Marcus did not bring up any of that. No one on the panel did. They were not permitted to say anything verging on politics, geo- or other.
Do it all! Marcus wanted to shout, but that was yet another truth no one on the panel was permitted to speak. Any other means of power generator, distribution, or conservation was someone else’s project.
From time to time it was his turn to field a harangue. He dutifully thanked whomever for their comment and, all too often, parroted some preapproved, eminently inoffensive platitude. And began to wonder if there was any way he could not have become cynical.
If he hadn’t been already.
A young woman in a Johns Hopkins sweatshirt reached the front of a comment line. An engineering student, Marcus suspected, because she asked about the radiation environment in space gradually degrading solar cells. When he thanked her for the question, he really meant it. He was an engineer, too.
He talked about radiation hardening, on-orbit repair methods, and opportunities for in-space remanufacturing. He reviewed the deleterious effects of weather on terrestrial solar cells. This, finally, was a question he could answer without breaking protocol—not to mention an interesting topic—and he pretended not to notice his boss’s sidelong glances until she tap-tapped her mike to cut him off. It was almost noon and they were, “regrettably nearly out of time.”
Two more danced-around questions and the ordeal was over. Until two days hence, in another city. Marcus forgot which, and it hardly mattered.
This was no way to save a country.
* * *
Long after Marcus and his colleagues had collected their things and were ready to hit the road, many of their audience still milled about in animated clumps, arguing. The stragglers showed no sign of clearing the aisles.
The wall behind the dais had two camouflaged service doors. Marcus opened one a few inches and peeked out. He found the service hallway empty and, apart from the distant, muffled clatter of pots and pans, quiet. “Shall we?” he suggested to his colleagues.
No one disagreed.
In the austere corridor, her shoes clicking on the tile floor, Ellen limped along beside Marcus. She had not quite recovered from a skiing accident the previous winter. Ellen was tall to begin with; in heels, she was almost his height. “Not fun, Marcus, but we need public support. It’s going to be a big change.”
“Understood,” he said. And still a waste of their time.
“Not everything can be as fascinating as radiation hardening techniques for solar cells.” With a laugh, she changed the subject. “What’s the car problem?”
“The circuit breaker in my garage tripped overnight.” The overtaxed grid, sagging and surging, was beyond anyone’s ability to predict—and with every new electric car on the street the load became a little greater, a bit more mobile, and that much less predictable. “The breaker must have popped right after I got home and plugged in the car, because I had about zero charge this morning.”
“And you had to buy gas this morning? Ouch. Well, you must have had ration credits left. That’s something.”
Double doors swung open into the service corridor, the kitchen noises swelling, and waiters rushed toward them bearing lunch trays. Marcus stepped aside.
Twenty bucks and change per gallon. That ridiculous line at the pump. Ration credits he had been saving for a vacation. None of it bore thinking about.
The pregnant pause. Her charcoal-gray power suit. Heels. She was way overdressed for the morning’s public flogging. “Where are you off to, boss, and what do you need me to cover for you?”
She grinned. “Clearly we’ve worked together too long. The administrator called last night. He wants a program update today. Hence, you’ll be taking my place at this afternoon’s interagency coordination session. I’ll mail the minutes from the last session.”
When the administrator of NASA called, you went. Still … “Isn’t that task force all career civil servants?”
Which Marcus was not. He was a SETA contractor: systems engineering and technical assistance. Fortunate SETA contractors got involved in everything their government counterparts did. Unfortunate SETA contractors took meeting minutes and fetched coffee. Lucky or not, they spent most of every workday stymied and snubbed by the contractors from the big aerospace corporations who did most of the actual R & D.
If you had to have a supervisor, Ellen was as good as they came. Kendricks Aerospace, prime contractor for the demonstration powersat, balanced the scales. Most Kendricks engineers on the project detested Marcus. Not personally, nor even professionally—they would have hated anyone looking over their shoulders. Asking questions. Making suggestions. Auditing their work. Highlighting risks. He got the disdain they would not dare exhibit toward Ellen.
When had he last been able to do, not merely review?
“Trust me,” Ellen said. “You won’t be the first support contractor to sit in.”
“What’s my goal?”
“Answer questions and take notes. Beyond information exchange, these meetings don’t have specific goals.” She paused. “If anyone tries to pin you down to something uncomfortable, you can plead lack of authority.”
Because he had no authority. God, he loathed meetings.
They exited the service area into a carpeted corridor. A wall sign pointed the way to the main lobby. They continued walking. “Okay,” Marcus said, “where is this meeting?”
“DOE in Germantown. Nancy Ramirez’s office.”
Reflexively, Marcus began guesstimating the miles added to today’s commute. He must have winced.
“I’d reimburse you for the gas if I could,” Ellen said.
But more than that, she had the look that said I wish there were something I could do for you. At least she had stopped asking if he “wanted to talk about it.” Because he really, really did not.
As for NASA reimbursing him for the gas, he understood: her hands were tied. Space Systems Science, Marcus’s direct employer, had bid for the SETA contract at Goddard Space Flight Center without reimbursement for local travel. Shifting local travel costs onto the staff kept the hourly rates a few cents lower. It hadn’t much mattered, when Marcus took this job. He had lived only a couple of miles from GSFC then. He told himself he might not have a job if SSS had pursued the work less aggressively.
He told himself lots of things. Other things he just refused to think about.
“But maybe,” Ellen added hopefully, “your car charged up during the meeting.”
“I wouldn’t complain.” Even at the hotel’s exorbitant parking-plus hourly rates.
But in the two hours he had spent at the town meeting, his car would not have taken much of a charge. The Jincheng was overdue for a battery pack replacement—which would run him about half of what a new car would cost. New car or new battery? He would put off buying either for as long as he could, rather than support the lithium cartel. Bolivia and Chile, curse them, controlled half the world’s lithium supply. Every lithium-ion battery bought anywhere propped up prices for the cartel.
Supporting the Russian oil cartel this morning felt just as crappy.
In the hotel garage, the eight panelists fanned out toward their various vehicles. Coming straight from home, only three had managed to carpool. “Have a good meeting,” Marcus said as he and Ellen paused by his car.
“You, too,” she said. “And don’t do anything I wouldn’t.”
“You should have thought of that earlier.”
Smiling, she kept walking.
Marcus’s car had accepted scarcely a tenth of a recharge, about what he expected. The car would switch to its little gas engine well before he reached his meeting.
“Destination: Department of Energy, Germantown complex,” he announced, backing out of his parking spot. The console beeped and a reasonable-looking map appeared in the main dashboard display. He tapped the ACCEPT key.
Once he merged into the clotted traffic of I-695 he activated autodrive, and the car guided itself to the rear of an auto platoon. He found himself nose-to-tail with a late-model blue Toyota. Seconds later, a white cargo van filled his rearview mirror. The van was too close to make out the company logo on its hood.
He had more pressing things to read than logos. Marcus dismissed the map to check e-mail, and Ellen had already forwarded the information he needed. But he had driven for too many years before autodrive to concentrate while cars not two feet apart joined and departed the platoon, and when to both sides, bumper to bumper, eighteen-wheelers blotted out the sky.
With only the ride to prepare, he opaqued the windows and began skimming.
He had also been around long enough to expect recession to reduce traffic. Not since the Crudetastrophe. Without funding for maintenance, highways crumbled faster than traffic diminished.
Marcus began reading Ellen’s annotated meeting minutes. He stopped noticing swerves (around accidents? potholes? the chicken crossing the road? Through the opaqued windows, he could not tell) and ramps from one freeway to the next. The traffic noises faded.…
A pop-up usurped the dashboard screen. Blinking red letters announced: Power alert. Smaller text, scrolling, gave the particulars: a high-voltage line severed from the Nantucket Sound wind farm. Terrorism neither indicated nor ruled out.
Marcus rapped the screen to acknowledge and again to retrieve a list of related headlines. The list expanded faster than he could tap through to even a smattering of the articles. Scattered secondary outages across Massachusetts as generators, distribution stations, and power lines overloaded and shut down. Sporadic blackouts predicted throughout New England, possibly rippling down the East Coast, while the grid rebalanced, or until the wind farm’s underwater high-voltage line could be repaired. The schedule of preemptive brownouts. Talking heads blathering about unsafe, indefensible infrastructure. Resetter groups saying the same, more nastily. Predictions, into the tens of thousands, how many cars would fail to recharge overnight. The certain spike tomorrow in East Coast gas prices, a buck or more per gallon, when all those cars headed for the pumps. The stock market tanking.
Multiple groups and causes claimed responsibility.
Cursing them all, he went back to Ellen’s notes. Too soon, the dashboard trilled: time to disengage autodrive. He took back control and made his way to the DOE parking lot. The charger-equipped slots were all occupied.
Sighing, Marcus got out of his car. Another damned meeting. He wondered if ever again he would get to do something.
Copyright © 2012 by Edward M. Lerner
Excerpted from Energized by Edward M. Lerner Copyright © 2012 by Edward M. Lerner. Excerpted by permission.
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