On his way home later, Nim wondered about the week to come, and the dispatcher's factor "u."
* * *
An hour or two after Nim went home, Georgos Archambault ventured out from his North Castle apartment. Now that his day for action-Tuesday-was so near, Georgos was more edgy and nervous than at any time since going into hiding. He sensed an observer or pursuer around each corner and in every shadow. But it proved to be imagination only. He obtained food, without incident, at a delicatessen, buying enough to last him until his departure for La Mission on Tuesday evening.
He also bought the Sunday newspapers and, on his way back to the apartment, mailed the envelope which contained that stupid Consumer Survey from Golden State Piss & Lickspittle. Briefly, Georgos hesitated at the mailbox, wondering if he should mail the letter after all. But, observing that the box had already had its single Sunday collection, and would not be cleared again until midmorning Monday, be dropped the envelope in.
Monday, relatively speaking, passed uneventfully. Tuesday, in the early morning hours, did not.
Nature, as if conspiring to embarrass GSP&L at a troubling time, mounted its own onslaught at the utility's geothermal field in the mountains of Sevilla County.
Deep in the earth beneath "Old Desperado," the wellhead which had once blown out of control and was never capped entirely, a subsidence of rock and subsoil released new geothermal steam under enormous pressure. The steam rushed to the surface with the force of twenty locomotives. Then, in a spectacular display which rivaled Dante's Inferno, hot mud, stones and rock were hurled high into the air with apocalyptic force.
Obeying another natural phenomenon, namely, "what goes up must come down," the tons of muck splattered widely over other portions of the geothermal field.
By sheer good luck, the blowout occurred at 2 am when only a handful of workers was on duty, and all were under cover. Consequently, there were neither deaths nor injuries, which would have been inevitable if the blow had happened in the daytime.
But the geothermal field's switching and transformer yard was less fortunate. It was deeply covered in wet muck, as were transmission lines nearby. The muck was a conductor of electricity. As a result, everything shorted out and the flow of power from all geothermal-driven generators; to the GSP & L transmission system was instantly cut off. No great or lasting damage was done. All that was needed was a massive cleanup job which would take two days. As for Old Desperado, its bout of mischief over, it settled back to sporadic, harmless steaming like a simmering kettle.
But for forty-eight hours, until the cleaning was complete, GSP & L would be deprived of seven hundred thousand kilowatts from its normally reliable geothermal source, and would need to find an equivalent amount of power elsewhere. The only way it could be done was by bringing more oil-powered generators on line, and thus the utility's precious reserve of oil was further, and unexpectedly, depleted.
One other question mark hung over Tuesday's operations.
Because of the time of year, out of the company's more than two hundred generating units, an unusually large number were removed from service and undergoing maintenance in preparation for the summer peak-load period. Thus, with the abrupt loss of Big Lil four days earlier, and now all geothermals, GSP&L's total generating capacity irrespective of the oil shortage-would be stretched thin for the next two days.
* * *
Nim learned of the geothermal failure and the potential capacity shortage on coming in to work on Tuesday morning.
His first thought was: How uncanny that the chief dispatcher's factor "u"-the unexpected-had intruded, precisely as the dispatcher said it might. His second was that until geothermal was back on line, GSP & L could not withstand and absorb another factor "u" episode.
The realization made him decide, before he started work, to telephone Karen Sloan.
"Karen," Nim said when she came on the line, "You've arranged to go to Redwood Grove Hospital tomorrow. Right?"
"Yes," she answered, "I'll be there in plenty of time before the afternoon blackout."
"I'd prefer it if you went today," he told her. "Could you do that?"
"Yes, of course, Nimrod. But why?"
"We're having a few problems-some we weren't expecting-and it's possible there could be a non-scheduled power cut. It may not happen, in fact it probably won't, but I'd feel easier if you were at the hospital and close to that standby generator."
"You mean I should go now?"
"Well, fairly soon. It's just a long-shot precaution."
"All right," Karen said. "Josie's here and we'll get ready. And, Nimrod."
"You sound tired."
"I am," he admitted. "I guess we all are over here. It hasn't been the best of times, not lately."
"Take care of yourself," she told him. "And Nimrod, dear bless you!"
After Nim hung up, he thought of something else and dialed his home number.
Ruth answered. He told her about Old Desperado, the geothermal cutoff, and the doubtful capacity situation.
She said sympathetically, "Things do seem to happen all at once."
"I guess that's the way life works. Anyway, with all this, and rolling blackouts starting tomorrow, I'd better not come home tonight. I'll sleep on a cot in the office."
"I understand," Ruth said. "But be sure you get some rest, and 3remember that the children and I all need you for a long time to come."
He promised to do both.
* * *
The special staff which had been assembled to process the so-called Consumer Survey in North Castle had been totally disbanded two weeks earlier. The basement room at GSP&L headquarters, where returned questionnaires had at first flooded in, was now in use for another purpose.
Sporadically, a few completed questionnaires straggled in. Some days there were one or two, on other days none.
Those that did arrive were routed by the mailroom to an elderly secretary in public relations, Elsie Young, who had been on the special staff but had since returned to her regular job. The questionnaires, in their distinctive postage-paid envelopes, were placed on her desk and, when she had time and inclination, she opened and inspected them, still comparing each with a sample of the handwriting from Georgos Archambault's journal.
Miss Young hoped the damn things would stop coming soon. She found them tedious, time-wasting, and an intrusion on more interesting work.
On Tuesday, around midmorning, Elsie Young observed that one of the special Consumcr Survey envelopes had been dropped into her in-tray by a messenger, along with a sizable batch of interoffice mail. She decided to deal with the interoffice stuff first.
* * *
Seconds after Karen concluded her conversation with Nim by touching the phone microswitch with her head, she remembered something she forgot to tell him.
She and Josie had planned to go shopping this morning. Should they still do the shopping, and afterward go to Redwood Grove, or should they cancel the shopping trip and leave for the hospital now?
Karen was tempted to call Nim back and ask his advice, then remembered the strain in his voice and the pressures he must be working under. She would make the decision herself.
What was it be had said about a possible power cut before tomorrow's scheduled one? "It may not happen, in fact it probably won't”. And later: "It's just a long-shot precaution."
Well . . . obviously! the sensible thing was to go shopping first, which Karen and Josie both enjoyed. Then they would come back briefly and afterward leave for Redwood Grove. They could still be there by early afternoon, perhaps sooner.
"Josie, dear," Karen called out in the direction of the kitchen. "I just had a call from Nimrod, and if you'll come in I'll tell you about our new plans."
* * *
Georgos Archambault possessed a certain animal instinct about danger. In the past, the instinct had served him well and he had learned to rely on it.
Near noon on Tuesday, as he paraded back and forth restlessly in the confined North Castle apartment, the same instinct warned him that danger was close. A crucial question was: Should he obey the instinct and, taking a large chance, leave immediately and head for La Mission and the cooling pumps he planned to destroy? Alternatively, should be disregard the instinct and remain until darkness, then leave as originally planned?
A second question, equally important: Was his present instinct genuine or the product of a heightened nervousness?