Power at all Costs
A short story about the dangers of using untested methods for powering our world.
"Today, we change history."
"A little dramatic, aren't we?" Kate asked.
Aaron Coplin shrugged, running a hand through his curly blonde hair. He was tall with piercing blue eyes and chiseled features, thirty years old and wearing it well. Kate Finzer was diminutive with short wavy hair, black skin, and brown eyes. They had been friends for as long as either of them could remember.
"If this works, we'll reshape the global warming crises. Imagine how much things will change when carbon dioxide isn't increasing the greenhouse effect."
"We're a long way from fixing anything," Kate said. "We don't even know if this will work."
"It'll work," Aaron said. He looked at Kate and smiled. "It has to."
She wished she could share his enthusiasm. He was the lead geologist on the project and had picked the location: sandstone formations to enclose the liquid-gas hybrid CO2. It had taken months of digital scans to verify that this location would work and months further to install all of the turbines which the CO2 would power.
Kate worked with the engineering team to implement the design; they would push supercritical CO2 into the ground. They had run countless simulations, testing the pressure and temperature so that when they turned the system on it would work safely, but there were too many unknowns to be completely safe.
Millions of gallons of supercritical CO2 would be pumped into salt brine. The liquid would expand and drive turbines which would create heat and pressure: eventually it would be converted to energy. It wasn't a difficult process, but each step along the way was critical: a single misstep would spiral out of control.
"There, look," Aaron said, gesturing toward the platform. The mayor of Bedford was gathered with the owners of the power plant atop a small stage. A crowd of a few hundred workers had gathered below, along with Aaron and Kate. "They are about to turn it on."
"You should be up there with them," Kate said.
Aaron hesitated. "No way. We're in this together."
"You're the head geologist. I'm only an engineer."
"You're the best damn engineer out here."
"I wouldn't say that."
"I would," Aaron said.
Kate shifted awkwardly. She didn't like praise, and she knew there were a lot of talented engineers out in the crowd. Still, she said, "Thanks."
"No worries," he replied. The crowd started cheering: with how far back in the crowd they were the speaker sounded tinny and inaudible. "Here they go."
There was a shuddering vibration beneath their feet, followed by a loud hum as the ground thrummed to life. Kate felt like she was standing on a paint-can shaker.
"Totally normal," Aaron explained. "That'll go away."
The entire crowd glancing around, shifting curiously and mumbling to each other.
"How long?" Kate asked.
"A few minutes. Give or take."
"Good, because it's making me feel diz—"
There was a resounding boom from the west and the ground shifted violently for several seconds. Kate lost her balance and stumbled, bouncing painfully against the sand. When it stopped there was still a hum, but now it felt like it was off kilter, like the cadence had shifted.
Kate climbed shakily to her feet as other people stood and dusted themselves off. She looked at Aaron, who was leaning over with his arms outstretched, trying to stay up.
"Was that normal?" she asked.
He looked up at her, ashen faced. She knew immediately that something was very, very wrong.
Suddenly, an alarm started blaring through the area. The crowd panicked and fled from the stage. Kate felt herself pressed against a sea of bodies, dragged with the current. Someone caught her hand, and she was suddenly being pulled the opposite direction. She caught glimpses of Aaron, pushing against the crowd and leading her toward the stage.
"Come on," he shouted over his shoulder.
"Where?" she shouted back. "We need to get out of here!"
He ignored her and kept moving, rushing up the stairs. The stage had already been evacuated and cleared, leaving behind only two people: a man in his sixties with a beer belly and suspenders and a woman wearing a prim white dress with long brunette hair. Kate recognized the man: Fred Dallinger, lead engineer on the project. The woman she didn't know.
"What happened?" Aaron asked. He was still shouting to be heard over the alarm.
"One of the regulators blew," Fred shouted back. "Pressure spiked higher than we anticipated."
"Can we release it?"
"Trying," Fred replied. He gestured at Kate. "Who's she?"
"A friend," Aaron said.
Fred nodded. He wiped the sleeve of his plaid shirt across his sweaty brow and tapped frantically on a little tablet. The woman watched, pensive and frowning.
"It shouldn't have spiked," she said to no one in particular.
"Well it did," Fred replied.
"With all of my calculations-"
"Ma'am, with all due respect, I don't care," Fred said. He turned to Aaron. "The remote pressure valves aren't opening. I think when the temperature jumped it might have fried the circuits."
"Then we have to turn it off," Aaron said.
"On it," Fred said.
He tapped furiously on the tablet, and gradually the hum under their feet decreased. But, it didn't stop entirely.
"Valve three," Fred said, frowning. "It isn't shutting off."
"You mean it's still pumping?"
"Yep," Fred said.
"What does that mean?"
"That means we need to get the hell out of here," Fred explained. "It's going to explode."
"No way," Aaron said. "There has to be another option."
The woman in the white dress turned to Aaron. "He's right," she said. "If we can't regulate the pump or release the pressure, then it's going to be critical in just under ten minutes. This area is hazardous."
"We can't abandon this project," Aaron growled. "If this fails today, it'll set us back dozens of years."
"We can't release it from here," Fred argued. "So we run."
"Is there a manual release?"
"Yes," Fred replied. "But the access shaft is locked while the pump is active. We can't get in."
"Then what if...?"
"No 'if's," Fred said. "There's nothing else we can do. We need to get out of here."
Aaron sighed glanced at Kate. "Fine. We need to go."
Kate ignored him, staring off at the salt fields to the West.
"Kate," he reiterated. "We need to go, now."
"I know another way in," she said.
Then she turned and sprinted across the desert. She heard the three screaming, telling her that she was running the wrong direction, but she ignored them. It was a little over two hundred meters to the access hatch to Valve Three.
There was a huge structure of pipes leading to the hatch, but that wasn't where she ran. Instead, she went to an outcropping of rocks thirty meters farther, searching for the hole she'd found several weeks ago.
She heard a radio crackling. "Kate! Kate! Come in, Kate!"
It was Aaron. She'd forgotten she had one clipped on her belt. She clicked it on, still panting. "Get away from here," she said. "Clear the area."
"What in God's name are you doing?" Aaron asked.
"Remember how you showed me the geological map of the natural tunnels that were here?"
"The ones we collapsed," Aaron agreed.
"We only collapsed ones that connected to your reservoir. Not the other ones. A tunnel leads directly to Valve Three."
Kate found the hole she was looking for in the sand.
"It's too risky," Aaron said. "You need to get out of there."
"How much time do I have?"
He ignored her. "Even if you were able to get to the Valve, it's going to be too hot by the time you do. You won't be able to survive—"
"Aaron," she said sharply. He shut up. "How much time do I have?"
A momentary silence, then he said, "Seven minutes."
"All right," she said. "Now get out of here, in case this doesn't work."
Then she tossed the radio into the sand. She heard it crackling; she didn't have enough space in the tunnel for it, and she didn't need it anymore. She slipped her belt off, kept only the flashlight and then climbed headfirst into the tunnel.
It went down at an angle for the first dozen or so feet and then rounded sharply to a drop off. This section opened into the actual tunnel network. She'd gone spelunking with her father when she was young, but it still made her claustrophobic. The ground vibrated beneath her, increasing her feeling of dizziness, but she crawled on.
She'd explored several of these tunnels, though never very deep. The only one she used regularly was the one that connected to the series of manmade tunnels surrounding Valve Three. It breached just under one of the service walkways surrounding the equipment, and she'd used it to surprise and scare her coworkers on occasion.
The only hard part was the twenty meter winding passage that connected the two chambers. It was a tight fit even on the best of days, but with the ground shaking it was even more difficult. She slid into the open hole in the cavern floor and started pulling herself arm-over-arm into the tunnel.
It was easy going at first, but suddenly her light stopped in front of her. The vibrations of the ground had knocked a chunk of sandstone loose, and it was blocking most of her passageway. What had previously been an uncomfortable fit was now a tiny hole blocking her way forward.
She cursed, realizing she didn't have enough time to go back. She was trapped, twenty meters under the ground in a tunnel with nowhere to go. Worse, she was only a few dozen feet short of the walkway.
Maybe she could slide through, but she doubted it. Even with her small frame, it would be an impossible fit.
"Not a lot of alternatives," she muttered to herself, brushing hair out of her face. She slid the flashlight through the opening, rolled onto her side, and started pulling her way through past the rock.
It was painful and uncomfortable, and she was forced to suck in a deep breath each time she tried to move. About halfway she got stuck on her hips. She pulled and felt the rock scraping painfully, but it wouldn't budge. She heard the alarm blaring and felt the heat emanating from the room ahead, but she couldn't move.
Panic set in as she realized she was completely stuck. Trapped, unable to breathe underground. She started gasping, feeling lightheaded. She tried to remember what her father always said when she got scared as a little girl. He always told her: fear can be a powerful tool if you know how to use it.
She bit back the panic and forced herself to relax and focus. She was running out of time. She shifted, rolling her hips, and jerked her way past. She received a nasty scrape on the leg for the effort, but she was free.
She scrambled the rest of the way forward up to the catwalk and grabbed ahold of the metal to pull herself up. She instantly regretted it as the scalding metal scorched her hand. She let out a sharp cry and yanked herself back. She checked her hand and saw a nasty second degree burn on her palm and fingers.
"Great," she muttered, "just great."
She stripped off her shirt and bunched it up, hoping the material would be enough to protect her from the heat. Enough time or enough heat, she knew, and it would catch fire. Still, she had to try.
She quickly grabbed the metal and pulled herself up, careful not to touch her bare skin against it. The air was sweltering in here and the machine hum sounded immense and overbearing. She felt it beating against her eardrums. It was sauna hot, at least two hundred degrees, probably more.
She stepped onto the metal walkway and could smell the rubber soles of her shoes burning. She wouldn't have a lot of time.
After only a few steps she realized she wouldn't be able to last long. It already felt like her lungs were burning and her entire body was covered in a sheen of sweat. Her shoes stuck to the floor where she stepped and she went as fast as she could to the controls. There were two valves she was looking for, one to release the pressure and one to stop the flow of the supercritical carbon dioxide into the system.
She found the pressure valve and used her unburnt hand and the shirt to grab hold and turn it. She could feel how hot it was even through the bunched up shirt, and after a few turns she smelled the fabric burning. By the time she was done she could hear the huge sound of steam being released above her. It was venting up into the atmosphere and would keep the system from overloading.
That meant it wouldn't explode, but it would still cook her. She stumbled her way to the other valve, feeling her body giving out from the intense heat. There was a banging sound above her, though she might have been imagining it.
Using the shirt, she started turning the other valve. The humming sound decreased with every turn, but it was hard to get it to move. The shirt got hotter, started burning again, suddenly caught fire. She threw the shirt to the ground, cursing, and looked back at the valve. It was mostly closed, but not completely. Until it was closed, she couldn't open the door and escape.
With a groan of frustration, she closed her eyes, took a deep breath, and then grabbed the valve. She screamed in pain as it torched her skin, but she managed to turn it all the way closed. When she pulled her hand back, she felt the metal cling to her and kept screaming as the pain intensified.
The ground fell silent, and the only sound was her screaming and the steam being vented overhead. Suddenly, there was another enormous crashing sound and she saw light from above. Aaron jumped into the hole, carrying a fire protective blanket, and he quickly wrapped it around her. He led her to the exit, and she saw Fred standing there.
The ladder was still hot, but with fresh air things cooled off fairly quickly. They hid under the blanket and gradually he helped her out of the hole. She heard sirens in the distance and figured they were for her.
"That was crazy," Aaron said, wrapping her in a hug as the ambulance loaded her up on a gurney. They hooked her to an IV and started pumping her full of drugs. She felt better almost immediately. "You shouldn't have risked yourself like that."
She smiled at him, loopy with the pain medication. "No risk at all when you're the best damn engineer out here."