June 18, 2018

A Sneak Peek of At Fault


Last weekend was HeroesCon, so the past week has been incredibly busy and hectic. I’ll share more about the event after I’ve had a chance to decompress.

I wanted to write up something about my novel, At Fault, since I haven’t talked about it too much. In fact, there isn’t even a preview of it on my website! So here is the first chapter of At Fault.

The Kindle book will come out on July 3rd, 2018, but if you don’t want to wait, the paperback is available here.




CHAPTER ONE

If anything, Peter was a creature of habit. He started each day with coffee made from freshly ground beans and a bowl of raw granola. Only after finishing his breakfast would he sit down at his desk and start working.

He checked his email to find the usual slew of messages sent to everyone in the geology department. But, there was also a single message marked as important.

Peter―

Due to limited resources, funding for your research will cease at the end of the summer quarter. Of course you are welcome to keep working under my team, the department just won’t be able to pay you.

Your new intern should arrive today. Please don’t scare this one off. I will not be authorizing another one. Or, you could just come back to LA. Surely you don’t feel safe staying in Last Chance.

Cheers,

Terry Hall, PhD

Geology Chair SLAU

He read the email twice, letting the implications of Dr. Hall’s words wash over him. The grant for his research had been substantial. How was it already gone? He had gone through the arduous process of applying for academic jobs just last year. Now he’d have to do it again, and the prestigious positions would likely have already been filled.

The ground began to rumble beneath his feet. Not again. He held onto the side of his desk while the structure around him shook. His glass paperweight danced across the desk, the cartoonish sea monster inside appearing to do a little jig as it inched toward the edge. He shot out his hand to catch the kraken before it could crash against the floor and held the trinket to his chest as he waited for the tremors to subside.

Once the ground steadied, he heard a car door slam just outside. Peter quickly adjusted his glasses, then opened the front door to the small building and watched as a young woman stumbled out of the sleek silver sedan parked out front. Her face was fixed in an expression of shock.

Grace looked like all the other female students from South Los Angeles University: slender athletic build, blond hair, and uniformly tanned skin. Peter burned in the sun, especially the bald spot showing through his deep brown hair. The day he’d discovered he also needed to apply sunblock on his scalp had not been a good one.

He offered out his hand when she got closer. “You must be Grace Hudson. I’m Dr. Cork.”

She raised a hand to weakly shake his. “What the hell was that?”

“That… was an earthquake.”

She raised a single brow. “In Colorado?”

“Unfortunately, it’s become a bit of a common thing.” He stepped back and gestured to the small building. “Please come in.” He followed her into the building, stooping slightly to avoid hitting his head on the low doorway.

“You work in a trailer?” She placed her fist on her hips and stood just outside the threshold. Working with Grace might prove to be difficult. His previous research assistant had lasted only two days.

“It’s called a manufactured structure.” He set the glass paperweight on his desk in its precise spot near the middle before redirecting his attention back to Grace. “They’re more cost effective for a temporary research lab. It also doubles as living quarters.” He pointed down the hall to where a small bedroom and a bathroom were situated.

Grace looked around the main room, frowning at her new office area. There were two desks, a small kitchenette in the corner, and a card table with two chairs. Most of his work took place outside, so the modest structure served its purpose perfectly.

He idly stroked a hand through his overgrown beard as Grace wandered around the lab, looking at everything. “It does seem newer than my geology lab,” Grace admitted.

“You’re a geology major?” The pitch of his voice rose, giving away his excitement at finally working with a student who might be genuinely interested in the research he was doing.

“No, sociology. I took geology as an elective.” She started looking through all the cabinets which lined one of the walls. Most were empty save for a few dishes and coffee mugs.

Peter sighed. There should have been several undergrads vying for a research internship. Yet, somehow, Dr. Hall kept picking worse and worse candidates.

“Which room is mine?”

“Behind me.”

She disappeared into the room, then came back out a moment later. “I’ve dealt with worse. Help me bring in my things?”

He nodded and followed her out to her car. There were two large suitcases in the trunk, along with a third suitcase and a duffle in the backseat. “This is a lot of luggage,” he observed.

“Heh, this is nothing,” she said with a laugh. “You should see how my mom packs.” She strained to pull out the smallest suitcase, leaving the rest to Peter.

“What is all this stuff?” he asked, picking up the duffle. It felt like it was filled with unusually shaped rocks. Dense rocks, like peridotite.

“Oh, the usual.” She flipped her long straight hair over her shoulder. “Shoes, clothes, shampoo.”

“There is a laundromat in town… ” He grunted, hoisting the strap of the duffle over his shoulder. Even if Grace stayed for the entire duration of her research internship, it was only six weeks. Her luggage probably held enough clothing for six months.

“In Last Chance? I thought there was nothing in this town. Is there a dry cleaner?”

“Uh… ” Why would she need one? Dry cleaners existed for the sole purpose of laundering suits, and Peter didn’t currently own one. “I don’t know.” He unloaded the bag and suitcases in the middle of her room with a thud. “I’ll let you get settled. We’ll start work tomorrow morning in the lab.”

···

Grace emerged from the small bathroom dressed and ready to work before eight. More accurately, half-dressed, with the bottom portion of her t-shirt missing and tiny, ripped-up shorts which didn’t quite cover her entire butt. Her attire was completely impractical for going on site, but Peter knew better than to comment on a woman’s clothing. He always wore the same thing, canvas pants and long-sleeved button-down shirts, regardless of the occasion. At least she was awake and ready to work before noon, a difficult feat for most students.

“Feel free to grab some breakfast and coffee. There’s granola in the cabinet above the sink,” he said.

“I didn’t realize anyone under the age of forty actually eats that shit.” She flashed him a quizzical look. “How old are you?”

“Twenty-eight.” He didn’t see anything wrong with eating granola. It was cheap and nutritionally balanced, which was all he needed.

“Well, I don’t eat breakfast,” Grace said, fetching a mug. She poured herself some coffee, then took the bowl of sugar from the counter and added a spoonful to her cup. Then she added another scoop, and another, and then a fourth. If the caffeine did nothing to get her wired, the sugar high would. He watched in disbelief as she mixed the fifth and final spoon of sugar into her coffee.

She sat down at the card-table, which also served as a second desk, across from him. After doing a twirl in her chair, she leaned toward him with her mug firmly clasped in her hands and asked, “Well, what are we waiting for? Let’s get started.”

Her enthusiasm was refreshing. He logged off his computer, grabbed his backpack, and stood up. “Let’s go to the site.”

In a couple gulps, she downed the entire cup of her sugar-coffee. “Let me get my hat.” She returned a moment later holding a large, floppy-brimmed hat and a pair of sunglasses. Peter opened the door for her, and they left the lab building to walk to the site. They would be exposed to the unrelenting sunlight for only a few minutes.

Scattered across the landscape were dozens of oil rigs pumping the life out of the earth. Developments in laser technology had produced a new drilling technique which could easily reach depths that had been only imaginable in the past. With lasers, a well could be drilled deep enough to reach the shale layer without being exorbitantly expensive. And since Colorado still had oil, several wells had been constructed in the last decade.

Peter hated that people were still so reliant on fossil fuels. They were environmentally irresponsible, and renewable energy was consistently improving by leaps and bounds. Instead of focussing on laser drilling and fossil fuels, he cared about the heat under the surface. Affordable drilling had made geothermal energy more economical. His current project was concerned with the viability of actually living deep underground, where the temperature was a constant sixty degrees Fahrenheit.

Instead of fully embracing clean energy, the large corporation funding the SLAU research team had invested even more money in oil rigs. They employed other scientists willing to claim the increased fracking activity was not harmful to the environment, a hypothesis which Peter believed was quickly being refuted by the recent increase in seismic activity.

“Just up ahead,” he said, pointing at the canopy over a large hole in the ground. Just outside the shaded area was an array of solar panels which provided power to the equipment below. He squinted in the bright light, the sun already high in the sky.

“This is it?” Grace asked, tipping up the brim of her hat so she could look at him. “It’s just a hole. There isn’t even a ladder.”

“You ever do any rock climbing?”

“There’s a rock wall at my gym.” She walked under the canopy and peered down the hole, removing her sunglasses to better see just how far down it went. He could tell by her wide brown eyes that she wasn’t listening as he attempted to explain how they’d get down.

“…You have to belay. You could try to carefully climb down, but it would take much longer.” Peter took off his backpack to pull out a couple harnesses. He handed one to Grace, who was still staring at the hole, before putting on his own.

“How do we get back out?”

“There’s a pulley with a winch,” he said. Research scientists needed a lot more clout to get high-tech equipment like elevators, or even staircases. Most of the funding Dr. Hall had received for this particular project had gone to the lab structure. Of course, Peter had not become a geology postdoc for the money.

“Do I have to go down there?” she asked, her voice uncertain.

“We’ll do it together. It’s perfectly safe.” Her hands trembled as he helped her tighten her harness. He handed her a helmet and put on his own, clicking on the light fixed to the top. Grabbing a rope anchored at the top of the hole by a pulley, he clipped both their harnesses to it. “Ready?” he asked as he pulled on a pair of protective gloves.

When she didn’t answer, he went ahead and jumped down, pulling her along with him. She let out a yell of shock before clinging fiercely to him. He controlled their rate of descent using the pair of ropes, letting them drop quickly.

Grace gave a sigh of relief when they finally stopped moving. “Thank God that’s over.”

“Actually, that was just the first leg.” He carefully unclipped the rope and anchored it to a hook on the wall of the well. On the other end of the ledge was a second auto-belay system. He began the process of attaching the two of them to the rope for the next section. “There are ten total.”

“Ten! Ten?” In the stark light of his head lamp, her wide eyes reflected the terror in her face.

He didn’t respond, instead concentrating on correctly attaching both of them to the next rope. “Ready?”

She nodded, and they descended deeper into the well. It took well over an hour before Peter announced that they had arrived. They weren’t at the bottom of the well; it continued much deeper than they could see in the low light, but there was a landing to stand on. She was still breathing heavy as he detached the ropes and unclipped the harnesses.

“Over here,” Peter said, leading the way into a cavern, flicking the switch on an extension cord as he walked, which made a string of lights flicker on.

Grace looked around the area. There were electrical wires draped along the sides of the cave, secured directly into the rock. They powered the array of devices which collected data, including air quality, pressure, and sound. Rubber mats made a path along the shale floor. She followed Peter as he pulled a tablet out from his backpack. With a touch of a button, the display on a squat machine lit up in a bright green color.

Looking from the display to his tablet, he noted down the numbers before explaining, “This measures the air quality. We want to note the percent oxygen, along with any troublesome gasses above the safety threshold.” He pointed out which numbers he recorded and demonstrated how to switch the display on the machine using the buttons.

Next, he showed her a device which resembled a jack spanning from the floor to the ceiling of the cavern. “This measures any change in the vertical length of the cavern.” The tool’s display only showed a single number, which he jotted down.

“Why don’t you just remotely collect the data? Why come down here?” Grace asked.

“Radio waves and Wi-Fi signal can’t penetrate this deep underground. The only way to get a signal down here would be to run a wire.”

She nodded, not looking completely convinced. “How often do you come down here?”

“Every day.”

“What?” Her voice echoed down the cavern.

He was unfazed by her incredulous expression. “I need an assistant just in case something happens when I come down here. It’s important to have someone who can get help.”

“Just in case? Like if this place collapses?” She crossed her arms over her chest.

“No,” he said, looking down at the span he had just recorded. “This alcove has proved quite stable, even with the increased seismic activity we’ve had. If I were able, I would come to the cavern by myself. Unfortunately, for insurance reasons, research staff can only go here in pairs.”

“You should do it alone anyway.”

“I did and got caught. I’m already on probation from that incident, and if I do it again, this project will get immediately shut down.” In one of the many gaps between interns, Peter had decided to continue collecting data like normal. When he had forwarded the numbers to Dr. Hall, including from days with no intern, his breach in protocol had been discovered.

“Maybe it should get shut down,” she muttered. She kicked at the rubber mats before following Peter.

“Most of the assistants I’ve had in the past were excited for the opportunity to learn about deep geothermal energy first hand.”

“Well, I’m not. My dad insisted I take this internship,” she said. He wasn’t sure what response she expected from him, but after a while she gave a heavy sigh and continued, “He’s the CEO of Synergy Power Systems.”

“Oh?” He glanced up briefly from the current machine’s display. “You’ll have to send him my gratitude for continuing to fund this research.”

“Or I could tell him you’re dropping me into this God-forsaken hole every day and get your whole operation shut down.”

“I guess you could,” he said, already moving onto the next machine. He had written the grant proposal for this project, which had detailed the duties and specified the necessity of an assistant. Grace’s father would already be well aware of her obligations. He finished collecting data, Grace glaring at him the entire time.

“Let’s go back up,” he said. “I’ll show you how to ascend, so you can do it on your own if needed.” He attached their harnesses to the rope, demonstrating each step and having her repeat them. With a quick tug of another rope, the winch activated, and they started their ascent. Traveling back up took a twice as long as going down. The whole way up, Grace tried to avoid touching or looking at him, even though they were tied to the same rope. Instead, she gripped tightly on her own harness straps with her eyes fixed on the wall of the tunnel as it passed by.

Once they were back at the surface with their feet planted on the ground, Peter detached the clips again and removed his harness and helmet. Grace took a step away before removing her own, picking up her hat and sunglasses from the ground and brushing off the dirt before putting them on. They walked back to the lab in silence. Before Peter could show her how to log onto her computer and put in the data he had collected, she disappeared into her bedroom.

He input the information, plotting the new data on a graph to see if there were any obvious trends or changes. From down the hall, he could hear Grace’s voice. She sounded agitated. She must have been talking to someone on the phone, but he couldn’t decide if it was a friend, or the call she had threatened to make to her father.

Another check of the graph, and nothing looked extraordinary. All the numbers seemed to be holding steady. Recalling the small earthquake from the day before, he pulled up the recorded feed he had downloaded from the span machine and looked for the timeframe of the quake. He took the block of time, including a few minutes before and a few minutes after, and threw it into a graph. Pulling up the graph of the previous earthquake and the one before that, he compared them all.

He was so engrossed in his work that he hadn’t noticed Grace’s return. She didn’t say anything and simply stood behind him with her arms crossed, sighing heavily.

“Hey,” he said, taking a brief glance at her.

“I called my father,” she said, her tone threatening.

He wasn’t sure how to respond and uttered a simple, “Oh.”

“He’s incredibly careful about which projects Synergy Power Systems funds. He said that if you ever put me in harm’s way, not only will he shut you down in an instant, he’ll come after you personally.”

Peter swallowed tensely, unsure what to say. Not only did he need for Grace to stay, but he needed to keep her happy enough so she wouldn’t go running back to her father. “Great,” he said, his voice cracking. He figured his best chance was to get Grace excited about what he was doing here. “Come look at this.” She pulled the chair from the other desk. “See this?” he asked, pointing at a graph.

“Yeah.”

“This is the span reading from during that earthquake yesterday.”

“It moves,” she observed.

“Yep. In fact, we could use these reading as a primitive seismograph.”

“All right.” She glanced briefly at him before gazing back at the computer screen.

With a couple clicks, he pulled up another graph. “There was another earthquake a week ago. Do you see anything different?” He displayed the two graphs side by side, and she studied them before answering.

“The earthquake yesterday was bigger,” she said.

“Here’s another earthquake from ten days ago,” he commented, adding the third graph to the screen.

“I don’t see anything.”

“It’s there. It’s just subtle. That one was only about a two on the Richter scale. But both the earthquake a week ago and the one yesterday were close to a three in magnitude.”

“But this one is bigger,” Grace said, pointing to the larger peeks on the graph from the previous day. “How could they be the same if the one yesterday looks so much bigger?”

“The tremors must have been more pronounced in the shale layer where the span is read, two miles below the surface.”

“Okay,” Grace paused, taking in Peter’s excited face. “What does that mean?”

“The epicenter for the earthquake yesterday was closer to the span device than the one before. Dr. Hall would find this fascinating. I’m sending him all of my data to get his opinion.” He noticed her look of indifference. She wasn’t nearly as excited as him.

She continued to watch over his shoulder as he collected the pertinent data from each earthquake and forwarded the information to Dr. Hall.

“So, uh,” she interrupted, “did you need me to do anything?”

“No, you can take a break for lunch.” Before the words had even left his mouth, she disappeared out of the lab. He looked back at the graphs on his computer as Grace’s car engine revved before the vehicle peeled out and racing down the road.



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